August 23, 2011


The other night I found a credit card receipt from The Pampered Chef. This is one of those Tupperware party kind of things that women go to and overpay for stuff because they feel guilty for insulting the party giver if they don't buy something. I told Laura before she went to that party to not buy anything. I had just started my own business and had made it clear in a Family Meeting that we're going to restrict our spending until I see what kind of cash flow we're going to have. We were to buy nothing unless we could eat it.

So, as Laura was heading off to this Pampered Chef party the other day and I told her not to buy anything, she told me she was getting a free meal out of it so I should relax. I can't remember if she explicitly agreed to not buy anything but I know she heard and understood my request to not-buy-anything.

What was she thinking? I stewed over this all night. Laura was already asleep when I found the receipt. I didn't think I should wake her up to discuss this. I knew that wouldn't go over well. So I stayed up thinking about how I'd approach this in the morning.

I avoided my wife for a while the next morning. When I could avoid her no longer I told her I thought we agreed that she wasn't going to buy anything at that party. Laura calmly told me she bought me a birthday present. A $22.26 birthday present. She bought something inexpensive which is exactly what I would have wanted her to do. And I bet it's an incredibly thoughtful gift.

Man did I feel like a heel.

I've been reading lately about biases. In The Principles of Product Development Flow, Donald G. Reinertsen says that psychologists know that "…[humans] have a general bias to interpret the behavior of other people negatively."

There is a nice list of cognitive biases on wikipedia. Some that are particularly relevant to this topic are:

Actor–observer bias – the tendency for explanations of other individuals' behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation (see also Fundamental attribution error), and for explanations of one's own behaviors to do the opposite (that is, to overemphasize the influence of our situation and underemphasize the influence of our own personality).
Fundamental attribution error – the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior (see also actor-observer bias, group attribution error, positivity effect, and negativity effect).
These are amplified by an additional set of biases:

Bias blind spot – the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people.
Negativity bias – the tendency to pay more attention and give more weight to negative than positive experiences or other kinds of information.
Availability cascade – a self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or "repeat something long enough and it will become true").
Halo effect – the tendency for a person's positive or negative traits to "spill over" from one area of their personality to another in others' perceptions of them (see also physical attractiveness stereotype).
Illusion of asymmetric insight – people perceive their knowledge of their peers to surpass their peers' knowledge of them.
Illusion of transparency – people overestimate others' ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.
Illusory superiority – overestimating one's desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. (Also known as "Lake Wobegon effect," "better-than-average effect," or "superiority bias").
Ingroup bias – the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups.
Projection bias – the tendency to unconsciously assume that others (or one's future selves) share one's current emotional states, thoughts and values.

But why would I assume the worst of my spouse? That's ridiculous. Of all the people in the world, I should not have these biases towards her. If this can happen within my family, how much more so can it happen in the workplace?

What I learned from this experience is how real these biases are and how on-guard we as humans need to be. Poor communication skills (or just a simple mismatch in communication styles), fear of reprisal and fear of confrontation can make matters worse. The problem with poor communication is we always assume it's the other person who can't communicate.

Kerth's Retrospective Prime Directive hints at a solution:
Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.
How do you encourage that other than posting it and reviewing it before retrospectives?

And in Coaching Agile Teams, Lyssa Adkins says to "...create a positive regard for them. Do this by changing your view of them. Regard the person as a human being with hopes, dreams and desires (like your own) so that you can approach them with love and compassion..."

How do you foster this in an organization?

Reinersten offers this advice:
This tendency [toward bias] is reduced when we get to know others as complex hum beings, much like ourselves. Task related (job related) communications by itself is not enough to create an appreciation of this complexity. Non-task-related interpersonal communication that comes from colocation is key to developing cohesive teams.

Chats around the water cooler, going out to lunch together, after-work drinks, post iteration and post release celebrations and kick offs beforehand are good things to try. Fantasy football and office baby birth date/weight pools and the like can help. Team working agreements (norms) posted on a big visible chart can help. Praying daily for your co-workers by name helps remarkably well. Other ideas?

We can bring up the elephant in the room in our retrospectives, but other than just hashing it out, what techniques or exercises have you found useful?

Most of us don't enjoy a tense and confrontational workplace. Likewise, most of us don't recognize how much we ourselves contribute to that situation.

What additional advice do you have to combat bias, increase non-task-related interpersonal communication and improve interpersonal relationships?


  1. Thanks for this. I've bookmarked the bias list at wikipedia, and shared your link. I suppose it would be good to make a short list of these for AIAF?

    I sometimes will (at least mentally, sometimes out loud) describe another as "my new best friend" if I want to place myself in a state where I can hear them. It is, I suppose, putting several of these biases to work in my favor. When dealing with someone who others find socially difficult, it has worked in my advantage. Sometimes I even actually end up with a new best friend, in addition to a very productive working relationship.

    Maybe there is something useful in learning to use or adopt biases on a temporary basis, semi-clinically, to boost your empathy and build a relationship.


  2. Ah, yes. My post was about avoiding the negative biases, but a great companion post would be on how to use bias in a positive way. Nice.