Bias for Action: Psychological Hack to Increase Productivity at Work

Sam Cook
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Ask anyone who’s ever tried to order off a menu from a new restaurant, and they’ll tell you: decision-making is hard work. Our brains naturally use a process called cognitive bias to whittle down the choices for us. Call it a type of process of elimination. However, when we cannot do that, our brains get stuck in a decision loop that often leads to no decision or a less-optimal one after much laboring. Bias for action is a psychological hack intended to help you forcibly move your back on track and get you past analysis paralysis.

This brain hack is helpful for almost anything in life, from setting and achieving goals to learning and updating new skills.

We heard you liked getting things done. Check out our guide to career goals, including our list of the best career goals to consider.

What Is the Bias for Action

Team members in an office on a couch using bias for action to boost productivity.

Bias for action, sometimes called action bias, is a cognitive bias important for personal and professional growth. The idea is always to take a calculated risk and embrace change; by consistently taking action over inaction.

E-commerce giant Amazon listed bias for action at the number 9th spot in their 14 Amazon Leadership Principles. As one of the world’s biggest (the biggest multinational technology ad e-commerce companies), they pride themselves on rapid innovation and a culture of moving fast.

As a result, the phrase “bias for action” became a familiar rallying cry for many business leaders and entrepreneurs. They demand this trait from their employees, hoping to reap its benefits of success. But what does bias for action means? How does it apply to personal life, career, and your workplace? What makes it an important leadership principle?

Calculated risk-taking

In application, individuals or teams are encouraged NOT to spend time overthinking information and over-analyzing their decisions. Instead, they are encouraged to take the initiative, digest the data and information presented to them as fast as possible and make the appropriate decisions quickly. It is a hands-off approach of leaders that aims to empower people to take action and continue moving towards the larger goal.

Bias for action key points

There are four key points to bias for action:

  • Decisiveness vs. procrastination
  • Quick thinking
  • Course changes
  • Moving forward

Here’s a quick overview of each of these points.

Decisiveness beats procrastination

The core idea of this leadership principle is to move as quickly as possible. There is no need to wait for the perfect time or other information to devise a perfect plan.

Quick thinking

Making decisions as quickly as possible requires the ability to take calculated risks. Act on it when you are presented with information as soon as possible.

Change course if necessary

Accept that many factors can affect the situation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You often need to change plans according to new information and developments in the situation. Thus, always be open to change and adjust your plan accordingly.

Keep moving forward

No matter what happens, even if you don’t get your desired outcome, do not get suck. Continue moving forward.

Benefits of Bias for action

Leaders and managers are required to think fast on their feet. These seemingly spontaneous decisions are what steer the organization toward success.

However, it is important to note that bias for action doesn’t mean acting impulsively. Taking risks without considering the consequences is never a good idea. Rather, it means evaluating the available information quickly and deciding which action to take quickly.

This principle leads to numerous advantages both for yourself and your organization. You can more easily eliminate analysis paralysis, learn more by doing, and achieve more goals by doing more.

Getting rid of analysis paralysis

As said earlier, analysis paralysis leads to procrastination. When you overanalyze things and overthink your decision, you are complicating things that should be simple. You become paralyzed by your indecisiveness.

Bias for action calls you to trust your instincts and to depend on your expertise and experience to make the decision quickly, so you can continue moving to the next task.

Learn more by doing more

The key to learning more in the professional setting is to do more. The more you do things, the better you understand the whole process, and the more capable you become in making the right decisions, should you need to.

When your decisions lead to favorable outcomes, people will trust you more.

Aspire to be better

Most of us are taught to fit in and behave like others. Sometimes, however, you need to break free from what is expected of you so you can rise to the challenge. Bias for action will help you to aspire to be better and dream bigger things for yourself, your professional career, your team, and your organization.

How bias for action leadership principle can be applied in the workplace

Here are some examples of how new ideas like action bias can be applied in the workplace:

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  • People understand the situation and act on it fast. They don’t dance around the problem
  • Meetings are called with a clear agenda and purpose. People are assigned specific tasks rather than simply sharing information
  • People understand their roles and know exactly what to do after meetings
  • Leaders foster a high level of psychological safety and encourage their employees to calculated risk-taking so they don’t get stuck on a problem
  • Leaders and managers get to avoid micromanaging
  • There is a set timeline for goals for each team and staff
  • Employees know how to approach data and dig deeper faster
  • People are willing to help their colleagues, even if the organization doesn’t require them
  • People are constantly improving, finding better solutions, develop new ideas

Note that many of these are not self-applications. They’re ways that action bias is exhibited in others. There’s a reason for that. While you may apply bias for action to yourself, it’s also an excellent principle to teach to others across your organization. It’s a particularly valuable skill to teach leaders within leadership development programs.

Ways to develop bias action for yourself

There is a vast difference between planning to do it and doing it, and that is the whole point of leadership principles like action bias.

But how do you develop this principle in yourself?

Commit yourself to adopt the action bias

You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.

This leadership principle requires commitment. The good thing is you don’t need a lot to get started. You have to take the first step in small items of your daily life.

Woman writing in a notebook during a meeting in a lounge.

For example, maybe you’ve wanted to start an Employee Resource Group at your organization. You don’t need to persuade ten other people to join before you even suggest it. Develop the project proposal yourself and submit it to your manager or someone in HR who could help be your champion for the program.

Quite often, a large project will take multiple tasks that occur over a sequence. Simply take the small tasks one by one, and before you know it, you are closer to finishing the whole thing. Making small and quick decisions upfront can help you develop the mindset to accomplish bigger things in the long run.

Be comfortable with taking risks

Again, the only way to move forward is to take the risk. No, you don’t need to roll the dice. You’re not leaving your decisions to chance and acting impulsively. Instead, an action bias means being comfortable with not having all the answers or seeing the whole picture at present. Your decision is based on the information and evidence you have at hand.

Do not second-guess yourself. Trust yourself, your expertise, training, and experience to make the right call. Gather essential information and let things play out while you respond to the results in real time.

Get rid of distractions

There is no shortage of distractions in this fast-paced world. You need to be mindful of what keeps you back and keeps you from making informed decisions quickly.

Stay focused on the task and avoid things that can lead you to procrastinate or lose focus.

Moreover, resist the urging to know everything. Again, analysis paralysis is a real thing; an excess of information can actually become a bad thing.

Learn things by doing things

They say experience is the best teacher. There will be times when things don’t go according to plan. That’s no time to panic. Pivot and make the right adjustments. Again, continue to move forward. That is the essence of the bias for action principle.

Ways to develop a bias for action in your organization

Leaders create a conducive environment for their team to follow their ways and grow. As you learn the ways of bias for action, you must impart this leadership principle to your team.

The better your team becomes, the better it will be for the entire organization.

Simplify the process

Yes, speed matters. But the only way your team can make many decisions fast and consistently is when they understand the whole decision-making process. That is an essential aspect of bias for action. To do that, you must teach them how to simplify the process.

Give your team the bandwidth and freedom to accomplish new things without the hurdles of excessive bureaucracy. Too much justification, micromanaging, and oversight can hinder productivity and decision-making. That is the opposite of the bias for action culture you are trying to impart.

Trust them to make the right call

Hopefully, you’ve done your due diligence in the hiring process. If you have the best and the brightest on your team, you have exactly what you need to implement a bias for action framework. You have spent tremendous amounts of resources in training your teams. Trust them to make the right decisions.

That doesn’t mean your team members should have zero oversight. You and your team members must learn how to mitigate risks. They can only do this by extensively studying the subject matter, studying the evidence, and anticipating the outcomes of their decisions. The more they do this regularly, the better they become at making the right decisions and taking action.

Set deadlines, but take time to listen

A deadline creates a sense of urgency. So instead of using an ambiguous “sometime next week or next month” date, set clear, realistic, and achievable deadlines. This way, you encourage your team to take the initiative and prevent procrastination.

Your team will take the proper steps to get things rolling and complete their tasks when there are set deadlines.

Moreover, if your deadlines are consistently missed, discuss them with your team. More often than not, they have valid reasons why they missed the timelines you set for them. Maybe there are too many roadblocks for them. Maybe there are unavoidable bottlenecks in the process that hold them back. Maybe they have too much on their plate and are struggling with capacity issues.

Take time to listen.

Break big goals into smaller milestones

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Yes, big goals (be they REAL or SMART) are intimidating. They have to be. Otherwise, they aren’t worth working hard for. However, to achieve your goals, you have to get everyone on board, and everyone should know exactly what they need to do. One good way to do that is to break big goals into smaller milestones for each team member.

As the old saying goes, “what gets measured gets done.”

To see the outcome, you need to know where things are going.

Identify these milestones and set deadlines for them. Draw a roadmap for you and your team to follow, and encourage everyone to achieve these milestones. Inspire people to take action and initiatives, but allow people to get the help they need.

Strive for progress, not perfection

Accept that things (solutions, tasks, and projects) may never be considered wholly done or perfect. You may reach your goals, but to move forward, you must continue moving the goalpost for your organization. This means you have to strive for progress and be better rather than becoming perfect.

Ideas, processes, and solutions can be improved and refined. But waiting to do something until “the right time” comes is a huge waste of time and opportunity. Inspire a culture of continuous improvement. Allow your people to grow and be better.

Have a Bias for Getting Things Done

Today’s hyper-competitive business world doesn’t give any breaks. Making big decisions is always daunting, but having a bias for action paired with quick critical thinking and the ability to anticipate results and consequences can make a huge difference in your success.

Change your habits and inspire your team to cultivate that bias for action culture by taking coaching programs to help you draw the roadmap to action bias in your organization.

Sam Cook