At a recent conference, the keynote speaker was discussing innovation and commented on how “additive bias” can impeded our creativity and innovation when we are constantly tempted to add something, as opposed to consider what to take away…

Given that bias, awareness of bias (both our own and that of our clients) and how this informs coaching conversations is of significant relevance to coaching, this sparked my interest and I thought I’d explore this topic further, particularly as the idea of ‘additive bias’ was a new one to me.

The International Coaching Federation’s Core Competencies and the Code of Ethics point towards the need to be aware of bias, and where appropriate to self-regulate in order to be in service of our clients. So, let’s take a look at some of the biases we might experience.

In very simple terms, a bias is a preference for one thing or person over another. Cognitive bias, a concept first introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s, is a normal part of the functioning of the human brain as we seek to simplify information through a filtering process. This gives us a coping mechanism, enabling us prioritise information and choices. In this way, the brain finds shortcuts to assist with the navigation of daily life. The idea of the brain filtering and sorting information had already been highlighted by George Miller in the 1950s when he described the process of distortion, generalisation and deletion.

Over the years, the list of human biases continues to evolve and grow. Here are just a few for reflection:

  • Anchoring bias. The tendency for the brain to rely too much on the first information it received when making decisions.
  • Attentional bias. The tendency for an individual to pay attention to a single object or idea while deviating from others.
  • Availability heuristic. The tendency to use information that comes to the mind quickly when making decisions based on the future.
  • Bandwagon effect.The tendency for the brain to conclude that something must be desirable because other people desire it.
  • Bias blind spot. The tendency for the brain to recognize another’s bias but not its own.
  • Clustering illusion. The tendency for the brain to want to see a pattern in what is actually a random sequence of numbers or events.
  • Confirmation bias. The tendency for the brain to value new information that supports existing ideas.
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect.The tendency for an individual with limited knowledge or competence in a given field to overestimate their own skills in that field.
  • False consensus effect. The tendency for an individual to overestimate how much other people agree with them.
  • Framing effect.The tendency for the brain to arrive at different conclusions when reviewing the same information, depending on how the information is presented.
  • Functional fixedness. The tendency to see objects as only being used in one specific way.
  • Group think.The tendency for the brain to place value on consensus.
  • Halo effect. The tendency for a person’s impression in one area to influence an opinion in another area.
  • Hindsight bias. The tendency to interpret past events as more predictable than they actually were.
  • Misinformation effect. The tendency for information that appears after an event to interfere with the memory of an original event.
  • Negativity bias. The tendency for the brain to subconsciously place more significance on negative events than positive ones.
  • Proximity bias. Proximity bias is the subconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to people that are physically close. A physical worker being considered for a raise before a remote worker because they are in the immediate vicinity of their superior is an example of proximity bias.
  • Recency bias. The tendency for the brain to subconsciously place more value on the last information it received about a topic.
  • Self-serving bias. The tendency for an individual to blame external forces when bad events happen but give themselves credit when good events happen.
  • Sunk cost effect. The tendency for the brain to continue investing in something that clearly isn’t working in order to avoid failure.
  • Survivorship bias.The tendency for the brain to focus on positive outcomes in favour of negative ones. A related phenomenon is the ostrich effect, in which people metaphorically bury their heads in the sand to avoid bad news.

Bias is quite often an unconscious process, and it is easier for someone to notice a bias in another person rather than themselves. This means that a coach can play a very valuable role for their clients when they observe and explore perceived biases they hear. Working with biases is a valuable exercise as they tend to have a significant impact on how we interpret the world around us and the meaning we make of our lives. The question is also, how does the coach become more aware of their own bias? Engaging in regular reflective practice, being coached, and working with a supervisor are all ways we, as practitioners, can continue to work on our own self-awareness.

Another concept linked to mental shortcuts is that of the metaprograms described in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). These are internal representations of your external experience of reality and determine how your brain pays attention to things and indeed what it pays attention to. As with biases, metaprograms work on the basis of filtering and sorting. They can also be contextual and can change over time as we come across new information, new awareness and expand our knowledge of our lives and our circumstances.

Once again, the list of metaprograms is quite long, however there are some core patterns which include:

  • Being motivated by moving towards a desirable outcome or away from an undesirable outcome.
  • A focus and priority of attention on what is possible or on what is necessary
  • A focus on the big picture or the small details
  • A focus on self or on others
  • A preference to be “in the moment” or a preference to plan “over time”
  • A preference for independence or for cooperation and collaboration
  • A tendency to be one’s own source of reference for validation and acknowledgement etc or to seek validation and acknowledgement from external sources
  • A preference to have choice or to follow protocol and procedures
  • A tendency to be proactive or to be reactive
  • An attention to what is different or to what is similar

Biases and metaprograms are not right or wrong, better or worse, however sometimes they work better for us than others and the brain’s inclination to find the shortcut can sometimes catch us out. As the brain favours patterns and habits, we are likely to default to a way of filtering information, and therefore viewing a situation, in the same way as before and before that…this is where noticing, exploring and even challenging these patterns can be really helpful in evoking new awareness, new perspectives and new possibilities for our clients.

How might you work most effectively with your clients to help them explore their biases and how they inform their decisions and behaviours?

How might you become more self-aware of your own biases, and they inform your coaching practice with your clients?

The bias I would like to end with, is the one we started with and is what sparked the idea for this blog in the first place: additive bias. When I am teaching, mentor coaching or supervising coaches, I often hear how the coach really wants to add value to their client – who doesn’t, right? However, the term ‘add’ can actually get in the way. It can be so tempting to add an idea or suggestion, to add something to fill the silence, to add more words to position our question…and yet what if we were to take some of those additions away? What if we were to also develop a ‘less is more’ bias?

Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair supports organisations to develop the potential of their people through coachingcoaching skills and coaching culture. Our Coaching with Conscience services specialise in offering coaching and coaching related services in support of positive social impact and social progress.

Tracy Sinclair, MCC

Tracy Sinclair, MCC is co-founder and CEO of Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair. She co-authored Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide (2020) and hosts the Coaching in Conversation podcast. In 2020, she founded Coaching with Conscience to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching.

Tracy is dedicated to the development of the coaching profession and the coaching community and has served in both local and global boards and workgroups for the International Coaching Federation. She was awarded an ICF Coaching Impact Award for Distinguished Coach in 2023, named one of the Leading Global Coaches of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards (2019, 2021), and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award (2021). She is also a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100Coaches and a trained coaching supervisor, mentor coach and ICF assessor.

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