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5 Psychological Biases That Are Destroying Your Team’s Productivity (and How to Overcome Them)

Kat Boogaard Kat Boogaard Last Updated:
5 Psychological Biases That Are Destroying Your Team’s Productivity (and How to Overcome Them)

You want your team to be fulfilling their full potential, yet there are still some roadblocks that seem to crop up again and again.

Perhaps there are a few contributors who never pull their weight. Or maybe you’re struggling to pull innovative, creative ideas out of your team, because they seem too hesitant to rock the boat.

Why is this happening? Are there just a few bad eggs on your team? Or is there something inherently wrong with your team culture?

Sure, there might be some truth to the above (and they’re well worth looking into!). 

However, there’s more than one culprit here–and the biggest one could actually be inside of our brains. We all occasionally fall victim to some psychological biases (also referred to as cognitive biases) that make collaboration extra challenging, especially in group settings.

Would we rather go it alone? 

Here’s the problem with that: The inherent snags in our own wiring can make us flat out dread working with others, as we think collaboration slows things down and adds complexity to even the simplest of projects. 

According to Margaret King, Ph.D., Director for The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, we tend to prefer working individually so that we can enjoy individual credit. 

For Americans, working in groups is a compromise, a loss proposition rather than a gain in talent and point of view,” she explains. “This is because our cultural imperative motivates individual effort and values, not the group, family, town, or team. So working in groups already has a negative outlook, no matter how great the results.”

Yep, there’s no shortage of negative opinions about collaboration in the workplace. But whether people love it or hate it, it’s a staple of the modern work environment.

So if some of your group problems really are a result of these psychological biases that throw a wrench in your collaboration, what can you do about it? Below, we broke down five common cognitive biases in the workplace. We also have some actionable steps you can take to overcome them. 

1. Parkinson’s Law

Have you heard the old adage that “work expands to fill the amount of time available for its completion”? That’s Parkinson’s Law.

Ask yourself this: When is the last time your team completed a project ahead of schedule? Never? Yeah, we thought so.

That’s because the work stretches out to fill the time that it’s allotted, and Parkinson’s Law can present itself in a variety of ways. 

For example, it could mean plain ole procrastination–such as beginning preparations for that group presentation only two days before the deadline, despite having three months to do so. 

Or, it could show up as frequent revisions and tweaks. Maybe your team would’ve been done with that website redesign ahead of the deadline, had you not spent weeks adding new features and making little changes.

Beat this bias

If the above examples are any indication, Parkinson’s Law shows up in teams in a lot of different ways. But here’s the most important question: What can you do about it? If you’re sick of coming in just under the wire, how can you combat this phenomenon?

One of the best ways to do so is to break your timeline up into smaller milestones. Maybe that ebook needs to be launched one month from now–but what comes before then? 

Rather than having a singular end date, set dates for when you need to have the first draft of the copy, when the graphics should be designed, when the landing page should be ready, and so on. For an extra kick in the pants, set your deadlines in days (rather than months or years). Science says that increases your sense of urgency. 

Breaking down the timeline into more manageable pieces will help your team feel like they’re taking strides to complete that project, which gives their motivation levels a nice boost (something called the progress principle). 

2. Social loafing

We’ve all seen it happen: A good chunk of the group is working their fingers to the bone on a shared task, while one team member sits back and barely contributes. It’s one of the biggest gripes about group projects. 

“I hate shared responsibility,” says Harsha Reddy, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of SmallBizGenius. “People tend to work less hard on group tasks because they are not fully responsible for their completion. In a group setting, I always find [it] hard coping with irresponsible people and I think my productivity levels seriously drop.”

Reddy is right–that’s a concept called social loafing, which refers to the tendency to work less hard when you’re part of a group, because you assume your fellow team members will help pick up the slack.

Not everybody falls victim to it (there are still plenty of considerate and conscientious team members out there!), but when people do, it can wreak a lot of havoc. Not only does it breed resentment within the team, but it also means that you could be missing out on other valuable perspectives, ideas, and contributions. 

One of the biggest challenges I face when collaborating with others at work is the lack of adequate participation from everyone involved,” says Joe Bailey, Business Development Consultant at My Trading Skills. “This usually makes it difficult to ensure that everyone’s views are well represented and that we are moving forward as a group.”

Beat this bias

One of the most effective ways to combat social loafing is to ensure responsibilities are clearly outlined for all team members.

After a meeting or group brainstorming session, “follow up with a written summary of important action items and decisions that have been made,” advises David Jackson, CEO of FullStack Labs

“The success of a collaboration isn’t based on what was decided upon in the room, it’s based on which points your team takes action upon,” adds Patrick Ward, Editor-in-Chief at High Speed Experts. “The follow-up email not only ensures that everyone understood what was communicated and decided on in the meeting, it also ensures accountability so that tasks are actually completed.”

You can make this follow-up extra impactful if you use a framework for the assignment of responsibilities. 

“A RACI matrix clearly lays out project roles and responsibilities so that all group members know what level of involvement and project ownership is expected from them–who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed,” says Abhi Lokesh, Co-Founder and CEO of Fracture

Finally, to add to that sense of accountability, you need to make it clear how you’ll respond when team members aren’t meeting expectations or are repeatedly blowing past deadlines. 

“Repercussions don’t have to be termination or even penalties,” says Tasia Duske, CEO of Museum Hack. “It could simply be a follow-up call with a manager or boss and noted toward more significant reviews like quarterly performance and promotion considerations.”

3. Groupthink

You pull your team together with the hope that they’ll bounce ideas around and land on a creative solution that they never could’ve come up with independently. But that’s hardly ever what happens.

Instead, they all nod their heads–agreeing with whatever idea was just presented, because it seems easier than rocking the boat. Nobody is willing to step up and voice an alternate opinion.

No one playing devil’s advocate can cause problems and leads to groupthink,” says Ryan Schuman, General Manager of Team Building Kits

You’ve likely heard the term groupthink before. Our eagerness to conform means we tend to avoid disagreeing for the sake of maintaining harmony. It might steer us around conflict, but it can also lead to some less-than-optimal results from the group. 

Beat this bias

Groupthink is prevalent, but there are steps you can take to encourage team members to come to the table with their own suggestions.

For starters, ahead of a brainstorming session, provide enough context so that the group understands the goal of the conversation–and then instruct them to come prepared with their own ideas. 

Once we do meet, we all have our ideas written down and then go over them together as a group and hash it out,” explains Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, LLC

On a larger scale, avoiding groupthink will also require that you create a team environment where conflict isn’t something that’s feared. Instead, demonstrate that healthy conflict contributes to productive conversations. You can do this by assigning someone to play devil’s advocate, voicing an alternate opinion yourself, or even using role playing.

“For instance, if we’re debating an issue and one of my employees is pushing strongly on one side, I’ll ask him or her to do a 180 and now push hard for the other side,” says Samuel Finn, Co-Founder and CEO of ergonofis. “This forces them to change their perspectives and see certain points they probably didn’t see before.”

“If people can’t disagree, dissent, and share their opinion, you get echo-chamber thinking. Diversity of opinions is critical to a great brainstorming session,” encourages Jason Treu, company culture and leadership expert. 

4. Planning fallacy

Imagine that you and your team are planning out the timeline for an upcoming webinar that you’re putting together. You estimate that you’ll need one week to iron out the content and another three days to design all of the slides.

In reality, you don’t have the content ready to go for nearly two weeks–and the slides aren’t even close to being finished yet (despite the fact they were started five days ago).

That’s a classic example of the planning fallacy–which is our natural tendency to severely underestimate the amount of time a task will take to complete, despite the fact that it may have taken us longer in the past. 

This overly optimistic attitude toward timelines can seriously derail team projects, as it means you’re constantly behind schedule and chasing your own tail. That explains why estimates state that less than one third of projects are completed on time and under budget. 

Beat this bias

There’s a lot to be said for setting aggressive, motivating deadlines–which means this tendency can be particularly hard to combat. 

You don’t want to give yourself too much wiggle room (otherwise Parkinson’s Law could come back to bite you), but you also don’t want to keep underestimating task duration.

To start, use history as your guide. Look back at times when similar projects or tasks were completed, so you can get an idea of how long they take in reality. 

The Toggl time tracker is a great option for teams to collectively track time on joint projects. Team members can look back on their tracked tasks to better budget their time for future projects.

When in doubt, it’s also helpful to build a small buffer into your project timelines. If and when something falls off track, you can keep things moving in the right direction–without majorly delaying the entire project. 

5. Hindsight bias

I knew that was going to happen.

Have you heard that before? We have the tendency to perceive events that have already happened as far more predictable than they actually were–something called the hindsight bias.

Maybe your team member claims that he knew that vendor was going to back out at the last minute. Or perhaps a separate team member says everybody should’ve known the client wasn’t going to like the project. 

Of course, those events seem a lot more predictable when they’ve already happened.

Unfortunately, falling victim to the hindsight bias can mean negative things for your team. “Because you think you predicted past events, you’re inclined to think you can see future events coming,” writes Drew Boyd in an article for Psychology Today. “You bet too much on the outcome being higher and you make decisions, often poor ones, based on this faulty level of confidence.”

Beat this bias

There’s really no way to predict the future, but relying on data can help you and your team make informed decisions–rather than choices based on faulty odds. 

One advantage of using a tracker like Toggl to time your tasks and projects is that Toggl has built-in features which provide broader overviews and insights into how the time is being spent.

Additionally, hosting frequent retrospectives after projects or initiatives gives your team a chance to download their experiences and analyze what went well and what didn’t.

Not only is this just a smart practice to ensure more successful projects moving forward, but it can also help you understand the reality of the situation, rather than operating with that perceived level of predictability that the hindsight bias offers. 

Beware of these psychological biases and help your team thrive

As a leader, you want to set your team up for success and help them do their very best work. But unfortunately, some of the biggest roadblocks you need to overcome are our natural, human tendencies. 

Despite your best intentions, the above psychological biases can swoop in without warning and sabotage the productivity and ultimate success of your team. 

Here’s the good news: You can do something about them. Put the above advice to work, and you’ll watch your team flourish in ways you haven’t seen before.

It also never hurts to have an extra tool. Part of being human means that our brains never measure time the way a clock does: it’s part of what’s behind the psychological biases above. This makes the Toggl time tracker an especially great complement to the tips listed above. We don’t have to rely on our sense or intuition to track our progress–we just hit play on the timer!

Take that, brain! 

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.

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