Objectivity is one of those traits we all like to think we have. After all, the best course of action in any given situation is to consider the facts and circumstances, and then arrive at the best possible decision. That’s easy, right?
Not so much. The reality is we all have biases. If they’re not managed, we then may pay in lost opportunities, money, relationships, and other ways, says Elizabeth R. Thornton, professor of management practice at Babson College in Boston.
“We commit cognitive errors all the time,” she says. “We perceive something, and in an instant, we project our mental models, our past experiences, our backgrounds, onto whatever that is–a person, situation, or event. Oftentimes, we get it wrong.”
Thornton recalls her own business deal gone bad because she had her personal identity too tied up in a venture. Instead of objectively evaluating the signs that the venture wasn’t working out, she focused on her passion for the project and the self-worth she got from heading it up. That lack of objectivity ultimately cost her $1 million.
When she was able to get some distance and focus on the situation, she began to think about and study the concept of objectivity, which led to her forthcoming book out February 2015, The Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are.
You may not have a cool million on the line, but your lack of objectivity could be costing you in other ways. Bust your biases and get a clearer view by tackling these important steps.
If you think you’re truly objective, you’re wrong. People are naturally biased, says leadership consultant Brandon Smith, whose professional moniker, “The Workplace Therapist,” reflects his expertise in clinical counseling. Once you realize that you’re inherently not objective, you can take steps to make yourself better at getting close to it, he says.
Thornton says we leave clues when we’re less objective. Are there topics about which you’re particularly argumentative or which get under your skin? Are there situations where you routinely overreact? If you’re getting agitated or highly emotional, you’re probably not thinking rationally or objectively, she says. That may be because you are emotionally invested in the subject or because you hold particular beliefs that aren’t letting you clearly see other viewpoints.
“It takes self-awareness, but in the moment, you have to be aware of your triggers and do the opposite,” Thornton says.
The best way to become more objective is to expand the input you’re receiving, says management consultant Floranne R. Reagan, president of EXXELL, Inc. in Boston. Build a network of people you respect whose viewpoints typically vary from your own and seek out their opinions on various matters. They may be colleagues, professionals in other businesses, advisory boards, or directors.
“Ideally, it’s someone who cares about you, but also has the ability to say something clearly in a way that you’ll actually hear,” she says.
Your natural way of being can lead to certain biases, Thornton says. If you’re naturally a people pleaser, then you may be making decisions based at least partially on your desire to avoid conflict or unpleasantness with others. It’s another form of bias, and can prohibit you from weighing the facts strictly on their merits.
Whenever you think you know all there is to know about a subject, it’s time to check your views in the interest of objectivity. A good way to so that is to solicit new viewpoints from others, Smith says. Specifically ask people to share how their views differ. By being explicit about your opinion and inviting others to share theirs in a nonthreatening way, you can compare points and see where you might be missing something.
“Saying something like: ‘Here’s what I’m seeing. Do you see it differently?’ lets people know that you’re interested in hearing how their views differ,” he says.