In isolation and negotiation, beware your biases

What things have been driving you crazy during isolation? Inconsiderate people in the supermarket? The crowds at your local park? People flouting social distancing measures and congregating at beaches?

Imagine this scenario. You are out having a run at the beach and you see a group of people ignoring the physical distancing laws and sitting together. You run by and shake your head at the “selfish jerks” (insert a different, more pejorative term as appropriate). You then see police approach them and issue fines. Admit it, you feel pretty smug, don’t you?

The next day, after the same run, you decide to sit on the beach for 10 minutes while you cool down. Unfortunately, you are spotted by the police and handed a fine. What do you do? You protest that you were following rules, you were just having a quick break after a run, you’re not a “selfish jerk”.

This type of scenario plays out on the roads every day. If you cut me off, you’re a bad driver. If I cut you off, I had a reasonable excuse for doing so.

Our tendency to blame circumstances for our own poor behaviour but judge someone’s character for theirs is a cognitive bias called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). Stephen Covey, he of the 7 Habits, explains FAE thus: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior”.

A few years ago, I worked quite closely with someone who was later diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. His approach to anything was an extreme example of FAE – if something went well, he was solely responsible; if it didn’t go well, he couldn’t bring himself to take any responsibility for it. Few people take their biases this far, but we are all impacted by FAE more than we know.

When preparing for a negotiation, it is critical that you identify and deal with any possible sources of bias. FAE, if unacknowledged, can have a major impact in a negotiation – it can lead to poor judgement about the other party, and impact our ability to understand their needs and make rational decisions.

For women, FAE can make negotiation even harder. Gender bias in society often means that a woman negotiating assertively is perceived as pushy or bossy, but a man with the same demeanour is seen as strong and confident.

To combat FAE, try these tips:

  • Be honest with yourself that you have biases and try to recognise them.
  • Be mindful of people blaming you for things outside your control and gently challenge their assumptions about you.
  • Likewise, remain aware of your tendency to blame others and aim to understand their motives.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt – rather than judging, practise empathy and assume a more positive explanation for their behaviour.
  • Endeavour to see the other side of the story; this will lead to more creative discussions and collaborative problem-solving.
  • Don’t get distracted from your negotiation goals by allowing yourself to be influenced by the other party’s reputation or behaviour.