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Cognitive Bias’ in the Workplace

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been employed by the County of Los Angeles. And through hard work and some strategic thinking, I’ve been able to rise through the ranks and become one of the few leaders without a degree. However, as of a few years ago, I decided to invest in my career as well as learn more about leadership and communication. To that end, I enrolled in a degree completion program and earned my undergrad degree, a Bachelor of Science in Communication. During this time, I’ve been privileged to have established some strong working relationships and learned the value of having professional mentors. These mentors have heavily invested in my career. And because of these relationships, I’ve made a commitment to assist my colleagues in any way possible to help them reach their career goals.

My career of two decades has allowed me to move throughout several of our public contact offices and some specialized units. And with each assignment, my goal has been to improve performance and positively impact the lives of the staff assigned to those offices. With that goal in mind, I transferred to another office.

Often when I’m assigned to a new office, I immediately notice outdated set-up’s or ineffective processes that are in need of change. This move was no different. Immediately upon arriving, I noticed the antiquated reception area and waiting room, several work-related processes in need of change to improve department performance, identified some programs that could be implemented to better utilize our human resources, eliminate wasted time and ensure that we’re meeting the needs of the public we serve.

Over the course of the next twelve months meetings were held with division and department management in order to get the buy-in of the managers and executive team on upcoming changes. Various were implemented, including reconstruction to half of the office to make the reception and waiting areas more welcoming to our participants. Moreover, a complete renovation was done to the rest of office including; paint, carpet and decor. In addition to the aesthetics being redone, an overhaul was done to how work was completed.

In order to ensure that each employee was working optimally, process mapping was completed on high priority tasks and ultimately new processes were constructed for everyone to follow. And to ensure that each of our colleagues were working exhaustively to positively impact the lives of the public we serve; checks and balances were put in place for the supervisors to monitor the quality and quantity of work produced.

Lastly, in our quest for complete transformation of the office; a professional development program was started. Staff that were interested in trying to promote were offered the opportunity to complete mock interviews, attend test preparation training sessions as well as various leadership development meetings. The aim was to provide our colleagues with access to opportunities that would increase engagement and reiterate the departments goals.

Just as we started to see results in the improved physical appearance of the office and the improved performance in the monthly business reports, a cloud of negativity started to permeate the air of the office.


In June an anonymous letter was sent to the executive staff of our department regarding a series of complaints against the management in our division. The letter enumerated a list of ten complaints, including; lack of parties, managers not speaking to staff, not being allowed to have individual coffee pots in their cubicles, not being allowed to have division-wide holiday celebrations and an overall lack of morale in the office. The letter was penned by one of the union representatives, at the request of ten staff members.

Based on the anonymous letter, the department’s director Vince May (name changed to respect the privacy of the individual), scheduled a meeting with the union representative and the ten staff members. However, prior to the beginning of the meeting, the union representative walked around the office asking all the 150 staff members if they had an ought against the division management. And based on her conversations she was able to add 4 people to the ten original complainants.

From my office, I had a bird’s eye view of these 14 employees silently walking with the union representative into this closed door meeting to lodge complaints about me, my two colleagues and our immediate supervisor.

Unconsciously, I kept looking at the door, wondering what was being said. Wondering if the discussion was about me. Wondering how it was possible that they had so much to say, that caused the meeting to last for two and a half hours. Finally, when the meeting concluded, the participants walked out of the room with a look of exhaustion, some disheveled, some wiping tears and some smirking. It was clear that the conversation exceeded discussion of parties and coffee pots. There was something more emotion driven and raw that occurred during that meeting. And more importantly to me at that moment, none of the managers were there to offer a defense of any accusations leveled against us.

After the meeting with the staff, Vince called the division managers into a meeting to discuss his interaction with those staff members. As we sat around the table, the tension in the air was palpable. We were all anxiously waiting to hear the feedback from our leader.

Vince took a deep breath, looked around the table and slowly began speaking. Because I’ve known him for over twenty years, I could tell that what he was about to say was causing him some distress. But as the leader that I know and respect, I knew that he would continue, even in the face of adversity.

He began by advising us that some of the things he would be saying were going to be hard for us to hear. He went on to say that it appeared the most prominent complaint made was that there were too many women in this division’s management team. I sat in my seat shocked and slightly bewildered, since all 15 of my colleagues that went in that closed-door meeting, including the union representative, were women. As I sat there almost paralyzed by the shock, he further shared that the specific complaint was that there were too many African American women in management. At that point, I could feel myself holding my breath, in utter disbelief.

I took a moment to collect myself at the table and started to replay in my mind the women that I saw walking into that meeting, all but one of them were African American women. I was hurt, as a woman, an African American woman and a feminist. In addition, I was offended for myself and for the other two African American female managers sitting beside me. As I sat there holding my breath in that brief moment, I thought about all the challenges, missed moments with our families and harassment that we have had to overcome to simply have the opportunity to gain a seat at that very table. And now here we are sitting at the table being criticized for being black women, by other black women. Somehow it would have been expected, maybe even palatable if that complaint came from the men we supervise.

And to hear that the complaints were not about us violating policy, making inferior decisions, or negatively impacting performance, but were simply because we were black women added anger to the mixture of emotions brewing inside me.

The managers sat at the table and listened to Vince and his suggestions for improving employee morale. And at the conclusion of the meeting, Vince and I walked back to my office. Because of our strong work relationship, we closed the door and discussed the situation very candidly.                  

I expressed how hurtful the entire situation was and how offensive it was for my colleagues and fellow females to call him in to discuss issues that could have been resolved by simple communication. Furthermore, it appeared to me that they were engaging in this old-world patriarchal bull$%^, by reaching out to him as though he was our father that needed to be called to correct our behavior and resolve our divisional dispute.

As we sat there discussing the issues that were brought up during the meeting, he advised me that some of my colleagues cried during the meeting and appeared to be really shaken up by the situation. This statement stopped me in my tracks.

They were crying.

Something that we did as a management team caused our colleagues to cry. More specifically, something that I did caused the people that I work with and work for, to have a negative emotional reaction. This thought shook me. Because we believed that everything we were doing was aimed at improving their lives, their work environment and their performance for the department. That thought stuck with me for days.

It would take me almost 4 days before I came to the realization that the problem was more than skin deep, literally and metaphorically.

Cognitive Bias in the Workplace

In an effort for us as individuals to make sense of the world around us, we will often make causal inferences of others consistent behavior. This use of our social perception will often cause us to incorrectly attach meaning to the behavior of others, this is known as the fundamental attribution error. This form of cognitive bias can influence a person’s judgement and decision-making. Unfortunately, because the judgement is based on a bias, the judgement is often incorrect.

Explanation #1

“A bias is a systematic deviation from a standard of rationality, an error frequently committed by the human mind.” (Caviola, 2014) The original 10 complainants attributed the lack of morale in the office to the physical attributes of the managers. For them there was a direct correlation between the managers being black women and the decisions to decrease parties, redesign the work environment and revamp work processes.

For this group, there were notable losses that contributed to this bias. First, there was the loss of the status quo. “Status quo bias describes the tendency to prefer the current state of affairs over a change even if a change would result in better expected outcomes.” (Caviola, 2014) Prior to the implementation of the changes to the structure of the office and the work processes, the office had not seen any significant changes within a decade.

And although staff were constantly apprised of any upcoming changes, at no point during these processes were they consulted for their input or buy-in. In hindsight, they were merely captive passengers on the journey to progress. And as expected for people that are averse to change, this was not a positive journey.

Another loss experienced by our colleagues during this journey was the loss to freely socialize and connect. While, our primary objective is to improve performance at work, it is inevitable that relationships are formed, as there is a human need to connect, celebrate and acknowledge each other. And with management limiting or putting restrictions in place that limited these opportunities for connection and staff not having any input or background information as to why these restrictions were put in place, understandably there was great emotional distress to the original complainants.

Explanation #2

Another form of cognitive bias that impacted the situation was groupthink. The union representative walked around the office inquiring if others had problems they would like to discuss with executive staff, this was encouraging to those that wanted to become a part of a group. “Groupthink occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.” (Psychology Today, n.d.) After the meeting it was said, the additional four people that joined the meeting did not have a true problem or concern, however they wanted to support their co-workers and were there in solidarity.  Moreover, there is a need to be a part of a group,” people want to be liked – they don’t want to stand out from the crowd, but rather, they want to be seen as ‘one of the guys.” (Katopol, 2015)

” Groupthink fosters a strong “us versus them” mentality that prompts members to accept group perspectives in the heat of the moment, even when these perspectives don’t necessarily align with their personal views.” (Psychology Today, n.d.) For those outliers in the larger group, this opportunity to support their co-workers gave them cohesion. They were now a part of the group and even though they didn’t agree with the complaints, they sat in the meeting and self-censored in order to have the appearance of agreeing with the group. Their instinctive need to belong superseded their logical decision-making ability.


Intergroup conflicts such as these are common in the workplace, families, and on a larger scale can be experienced between tribes, sects, or nations. In families, the conflict may occur between parents and children when it comes to where to spend vacations or the children’s preference for pizza for dinner as opposed to a healthier option preferred by parents. And on a larger scale, two nations may be in conflict over land, other resources, or feelings of oppression. For example, the conflict in the Middle East between Syria and Iraq which is rooted in a number of reasons including feelings of political oppression.

Because groupings are not going to be eliminated from the family, workplace, or community, it is imperative that we learn to understand and respond to them effectively. And having an understanding that these conflicts often involve bias’, such as the fundamental attribution error and group think, is key to being able to address and resolve these issues.

Although people will continue to use mental shortcuts such as those associated with the fundamental attribution error. Research “suggests that individuals who have developed a complex attributional schema can alter their behavioral judgments despite their initial judgments. Developing a more complex attributional schema, then, will increase the likelihood of explaining behavior accurately”. (Ross, 2018) Therefore, organizations should implement training programs designed to develop and improve social judgement.

And lastly, the bias of groupthink should be considered during an intergroup conflict. As mediators and leaders, it’s important to remember that our organizations are, “not just a collection of random people, but people whose identity is tied into being a member of the group. They have a positive image of the group and seek to retain that image in the face of threat. The desire to be part of the group and to keep it going exerts such a pull, that when faced by a threat, group members will make those decisions, rational or not, that will help the group continue.” (Katopol, 2015) These decisions that may seem irrational to those of us outside the group, like a group of women complaining because their management group is made up of women, likely has a much deeper cause. However, in order to successfully work together we must be considerate that the presenting issues are probably not the root issues, as most problems are more than skin deep.


Caviola, L., Mannino, A., Savulescu, J., & Faulmüller, N. (2014). Cognitive biases can affect moral intuitions about cognitive enhancement. Frontiers in systems neuroscience, 8, 195. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00195

Groupthink. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Katopol, P. (2015, November). Groupthink: Group Dynamics and the Decision-making Process. Retrieved from

Ross, L. (2018). From the Fundamental Attribution Error to the Truly Fundamental Attribution Error and Beyond: My Research Journey. Perspectives on Psychological Science,13(6), 750-769. doi:10.1177/1745691618769855


Monica Brown-Coleman

Monica Brown-Coleman has work in the public sector for over twenty years in a variety of capacities, including supervision and management. In addition, she obtained her undergraduate degree a Bachelor of Science in Communication at Arizona State University. And is currently completing her graduate degree a Master of Arts in Negotiation,… MORE >

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