Five Remote Working Cognitive Biases and How to Tackle Them

When teams work remotely, every blunt-sounding email, malfunctioning microphone and conspicuously “away” coworker increases the odds of confusion and frustration. But often the complexities of keeping virtual teams happy, motivated and productive can be straightened out by communicating more effectively.

Here are five cognitive biases that could be unconsciously affecting your remote team and how to tackle them.

1. The Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect is the tendency to do or believe things because other people (or businesses) do or believe the same.

For example, remote employees who only directly communicate through biweekly video calls could find themselves sticking to the same inefficient processes for months because each person assumes that everyone else is fine with them. In reality, all team members could benefit from breaking the status quo by introducing a new tool or removing an unnecessary step.

To limit the bandwagon effect, create regular opportunities for your remote workers to give feedback not just on what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it. For example, do they always feel in touch with what others are working on? Would direct messages be more efficient than email?

2. The Singularity Effect

When some of your team work face-to-face and others are remote, you could fall foul of the singularity effect – the tendency to be more considerate to a single identifiable individual than a large group of “nameless” ones.

While your remote workers are far from nameless, a spontaneous brainstorming session around an office desk could nevertheless make them feel left out, even if you give them a summary later.

To prevent this disharmony, try to limit siloed communication both in official meetings and casual conversations. For instance, virtual coffee breaks, in which employees spend a few hours each week chatting via video calls, could help your remote and face-to-face teams feel more connected. Those who work from home could even give video tours of their respective workspaces.

3. The Pygmalion Effect

Named after an ancient Greek sculptor who fell in love with a statue he carved, the Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon in which your expectation of how someone will perform directly affects their performance. High expectations lead to better performance, and low expectations lead to worse.

To leverage this effect, set high but achievable expectations and make them clear to everyone on the team, whether they work remotely or face-to-face.

Remember to sing the praises of high-performing individuals in team channels.

If you spot complaints and frustrations that feed off each other, interrupt the cycle by devising solutions through video or face-to-face meetings.

4. Law of the Instrument

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

This is the concept of Maslow’s hammer, or the law of the instrument. It refers to overreliance on a familiar tool or failing to see how a tool could be used for other productive purposes.

To avoid this bias, look for ways to get more from your technology. For example:

  • Switch to direct messages via a communication app instead of cumbersome email threads
  • Use video calls for informal hangouts as well as official meetings
  • Use cloud-based office tools to collaborate on documents in real-time, instead of sending new versions back and forth
  • Use project management software to set goals and automatically track time and progress instead of recording it all by hand

5. Hostile Attribution Bias

Detecting the emotion behind an email or direct message can be tough, especially if your knowledge of the sender’s personality is formed remotely instead of in person.

The danger comes from assuming the worst: “Their reply was short – they must be angry!” This is the hostile attribution bias at work.

The lesson is that you shouldn’t assume there’s an issue or that someone is angry or annoyed based on a few ambiguous words. Instead, encourage your team to give each other the benefit of the doubt. And when uncertainty persists, use honest conversation via voice or video to get a better feel for motivation, stress levels and expectations.

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