W. Edwards Deming, a forward-thinking American who helped engineer the Japanese economic miracle and was the father of the continuous quality improvement philosophy, wrote that 94% of issues in the workplace are systemic. Only 6% are attributable to individual-level, idiosyncratic factors. Improvements, therefore, should also focus on systems — not individuals.
Recent research supports Deming’s thinking. Systemic factors embedded in organizational cultures and processes are the primary cause of critical workplace issues — for example, leaders failing to execute strategy within organizations, threats to employee mental health and well-being, and a lack of belonging and inclusion.
And yet, many of these and other issues are still mainly addressed on the individual level. Here are just a few examples of those issues and their individualized interventions:
- Mental health apps, resilience training, or lunch-break yoga are often seen as solutions to employee stress, burnout, and moral injury.
- Systemic issues that interfere with performance (e.g., operational bottlenecks and systematic understaffing) are ignored, while individual employees are invasively monitored and “squeezed.”
- Chronic lack of diversity and inclusion is “addressed” by advancing a token person or two.
- Bullying problems in toxic environments are tackled with assertiveness training for targets and self-awareness coaching for bullies.
- Lackluster leadership performance is expected to improve after attending an off-the-shelf training program.
- Training is thrown at problems that can’t be solved with training — for example, ineffective decision-making processes.
Individual-level interventions do have value; they just don’t work long enough or well enough without improving organizational-level and management practices. For example, how effective is a five-minute stress-relief meditation for an employee who works in a chronically understaffed department with an erratically-behaving boss who is in turn harassed by their boss? About as effective as rinsing the salt off a pickle and then putting it back into the brine.
Why do organizations keep investing in remedies that don’t work and have little chance of working? An automatic bias in how we perceive and explain the world is a likely culprit. Here’s how that “superbias” manifests — and what leaders can do to combat it in their organizations.
The Superbias: How Nurture, Nature, and Stressful Situations Prompt Mental Shortcuts
A common glitch in human cognition might be partially responsible for a tendency to pay more attention to individual rather than systemic factors. When we perceive people, it shows up as fundamental attribution error (FAE), or a dispositional bias: a cognitive bias that leads us to explain others’ behavior largely by their disposition (i.e., their personality, ability, or character) while ignoring situational and contextual factors (e.g., a worker is irresponsible rather than overstretched).
Similarly, the group attribution error (GAE) may bias our perceptions of social groups that are not our own. As a result, we attribute these group members’ behavior to internal characteristics rather than circumstances. For example, many assume that women don’t negotiate because they lack negotiation skills, while in fact many women may hold back because they’re worried about negotiation backlash — a social penalty for violating gendered norms of “niceness.”
FAE and GAE show how many of us are inclined to underestimate the influence of situations and systems — and together represent the dispositional superbias that causes us to favor individual interventions over systemic ones. (Note that “superbias” is a term I created to consolidate the varied terminology used in research to describe an array of concepts that overlap with FAE and GAE: dispositional bias or the correspondence bias in perceiving individuals, and the ultimate attribution error and the intergroup attribution bias in perceiving groups.)
So, where do these patterns of thinking come from? Extensive research points to cultural learning as a major influence on our minds. However, some cognitive differences might also be genetically determined. Both culture and neural wiring — nurture and nature — impact our cognition and perception, creating a tendency to think in a more individual-focused or context-focused way.
Importantly, a tendency does not mean we can only think in one way — rather, for most people, one way of thinking feels easier and more “natural,” like using a dominant hand. Some researchers describe perceiving others as a two-step process. The first step is easy and automatic, and the second is hard and deliberate. Stress and time pressure — or other aspects of our situation — make us more likely to take the first, easy step of attributing someone’s behavior to their disposition, but not the second, harder step of analyzing the context.
Here’s a deeper look at the three powerful influences that shape how we think:
People from non-Western and collectivistic societies are less likely to attribute others’ behavior to individual characteristics (e.g., “she is kind”). Instead, they often focus on group-level influences (e.g., “she was with her friends”). Thinkers from collectivist cultures are generally more attuned to context when perceiving people or objects. For example, East Asian research participants saw background elements of visuals more readily and remembered them better than Westerners, who tended to focus on the central figure while ignoring — and forgetting — the context. Additionally, within the same society, people growing up in a lower socioeconomic class develop a more interdependent way of thinking, while wealthier people are more likely to focus on the individual sense of control.
Neural wiring also impacts thinking patterns. Individual-level neurological differences in brain activation are related to the likelihood of committing FAE. For example, some research suggests that autistic people are predisposed to think systemically, are less susceptible to bias, and make more accurate predictions of human behavior in groups.
Stressful environments make people more likely to take mental shortcuts. For example, when placed under stress, Western research participants evaluating a legal case were more likely to ignore mitigating circumstances, committing an FAE. In addition, for multicultural people, environmental cues can prime more- or less-contextual mindsets. This was shown in experiments by bilingual, bicultural people from Hong Kong, who switched between traditionally Chinese and traditionally Western thinking and perception patterns in response to cultural symbols (e.g., national flags). When primed with seeing Western symbols, they were more likely to use dispositional attributions.
The evidence is clear that global diversity, socioeconomic and experiential diversity, and neurodiversity shape our minds, including the propensity toward FAE and GAE. Our thinking habits, in turn, shape workplaces — and can create environments that perpetuate one dominant mindset. But having one dominant mindset may lead to biased decisions, and it’s important to guard against this tendency.
Building the Systemic Thinking Advantage in Organizations
Overlooking contextual and systemic influences on performance and organizational effectiveness results in costly errors. On the individual level, for instance, ignoring the role of supply issues and understaffing may lead to unfairly blaming work delays on dedicated employees. These employees may in turn leave, worsening the understaffing problem.
On the group level, decision makers may assume that women need to “lean in” or develop confidence amid systemic sexism. However, “fixing” women is not the solution — fixing environments to create systemic inclusion and allow women to succeed authentically is. In another example, disabled people might be perceived as not “fixable enough” and be summarily excluded, perpetuating ableist systems. A systemic perspective, such as the social model of disability, points toward fixing the lack of accessibility that “disables” individuals who could deliver outstanding results if using well-matched technology or simply working from home.
How can organizations prevent wasting resources and even committing an injustice by trying to fix and excluding individuals when a systemic intervention is called for?
On the individual level, FAE and GAE are difficult to overcome, mainly because of our tendency to revert to automatic patterns and biases when under stress. However, developing empathy and perspective-taking, as well as expanding one’s cultural experience, may help. Perspective-taking training reduces dispositional error, at least in the short term, because it allows us to think about others the way we think about ourselves: contextually. Training individuals in systems thinking and practicing drawing and explaining systems diagrams may also increase cognitive flexibility.
However, while individual-level solutions for “changing minds” are limited, group-level solutions can help develop a more balanced and flexible collective cognition and enrich the collective contextual intelligence. Here are five ways organizations can tame the superbias at the group level:
Diversify the collective cognition in leadership.
When decision-maker groups are homogenous, groupthink is likely. When neurotypical individuals from affluent or Western backgrounds dominate groups, decisions will likely converge toward the shared assumption that everything others do is an individual problem. Including those whose cultural learning or brain wiring make them more inclined to automatically focus on context and systems — even under stress — can expand the groups’ perspective. Welcoming the viewpoints of people who grew up without socioeconomic privilege or in non-Western cultural environments, being inclusive of neurodivergent people, and identifying and involving individuals with high levels of contextual intelligence can support a more balanced collective decision making.
This diversity should go beyond tokenistic representation or a temporary “intervention” — organizations should ensure that mechanisms for true inclusion and developing a critical mass of different voices are embedded within systems and processes.
Integrate contextual thinking into forms and procedures.
Questions about contextual considerations can be integrated into forms and templates used for decision making. Training-needs analysis and professional development planning, for example, may include questions about contextual issues that could prevent employees from implementing the new learning, such as bureaucratic structures or a lack of support. The planning of well-being programs may include not only considerations for which apps or events could be added, but also which organizational stressors could be eliminated. And diversity and inclusion assessments and plans must focus on removing systemic barriers, such as biased selection instruments (like unstructured interviews) and inequities in access to high-visibility projects.
Address the stress.
Stress increases the likelihood of ignoring contextual factors. Removing unnecessary time pressure, the need to multitask or juggle multiple projects, physical discomfort (e.g., an indoor temperature that’s too cold or hot), and other stressors that can be controlled allows for more deliberate thinking and reduces the likelihood of taking “mental shortcuts” and reverting to biases. People need time, energy, and mental capacity to consider issues in all their complexity.
Invite broad input.
Employees “in the trenches,” from customer service and frontline supervisors, to research and development, to entry-level HR specialists, see organizational life and industry dynamics from different perspectives. Pooling this collective knowledge via regular surveys, focus groups, and involvement in decision making can help leaders develop a contextually rich picture of organizational pain points and bottlenecks and result in nuanced and systemic solutions.
Regularly asking frontline employees for their perspectives can be a major source of competitive advantage and process improvement, too. Customer service representatives understand the diversity of customer needs and the barriers preventing organizations from meeting them. HR specialists, line supervisors, and employees in the trenches will know whether more employee training, more scheduling options, or even better workplace lighting will be particularly beneficial. And cleaning crews will have a unique insight into organizational work patterns.
Appoint a systems champion.
Human attention is limited, and thinking about our own thinking while trying to solve pressing problems is nearly impossible. However, groups can appoint an individual whose role is to remind all its members about the importance of taking a systemic perspective. This is a more specific variation of the “devil’s advocate” role in preventing groupthink. The champion could remind the group of the pickle principle: Before investing in a pickle intervention, consider the brine.
. . .
Developing a more balanced way of thinking that carefully considers both individual and systemic factors can help leaders be more objective and compassionate, earning employee trust while making more accurate decisions. It can help leadership teams address inclusion systemically and go beyond fragmented efforts. It can help organizations create effective productivity systems that don’t burn out and alienate employees. And on national and global levels, appreciating systemic interdependencies between businesses and communities can help create a healthier and systemically sustainable future of work — and the world.
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