Project Management Institute

Discovering bias in facilitated teams


by Edward A. Ziv

A SMOOTHLY OPERATING PROJECT TEAM can be a thing of beauty—productive, creative, and truly greater than the sum of its parts. There are times, however, when keeping a project team together, focused, and productive can be as challenging as climbing Mount Everest. Barefoot. Carrying someone on your shoulders.

Whether you are serving the team as a formal facilitator, a project leader, or simply a team member, it can be frustrating when those around you seem to be fighting the process. Disagreements, of course, are to be expected, as teams are usually designed to have representatives of differing views, experiences, and positions.

The problem isn't that these opinions and feelings exist, it's when team members fail to recognize their own or each other's biases that a molehill can turn into an immovable mountain. So rather than trying to “fix” these biases, it's imperative that they be brought out into the open.

Who Are You Calling “Biased”? Nobody wants to be thought of as “biased.” It conjures up images of prejudice and closed-mindedness. A bias, however, is simply a deeply held opinion or a subjective view. Biases are normal, a healthy part of life, and we've all got them. They come from many other places in our lives:

Our life; including religion, schooling, friends, relatives, and heritage

Overt work influences; more specifically, our perception of the corporate vision, and our personal and departmental goals

Subtle work influences; which entails the “Corporate Culture,” including work experiences and the stories and heroes within our work environment.

Why Should I Care? Take the case where a new departmental structure is being considered. A team member might be biased for or against the idea because of previous experiences with individuals in the department, a perception that big departments are ineffective, or a memory of what happened the last time the company tried to do something like this. However, what emerges in the actual meetings might be statements such as, “That will never work” or “This will cost too much to implement.” It is important when conflict arises or judgments are made that the team address the true issues rather than running around in this smokescreen.

Also, biases can be an impediment to team formation and communication. Recognizing the biases, conflicts, and motivations will facilitate better communication within the group itself and between the group and management.

Not all conflicts have to be resolved and not all motivations have to surface. We're not talking about group therapy here; the team exists to get a job done. If a bias gets in the way of this or inhibits comfortable and clear communication, the team may still function, but will carry a “pearl”—an irritating and uncomfortable nugget that won't easily disappear. Like a pearl, layers will be built up over time and accommodations made, but the underlying problem will never be resolved.

Edward A. Ziv is a senior consultant at Flash Creative Management, a management consulting firm in Hackensack, N.J., that has three times been cited as one of Inc. Magazine's 500 fastest growing companies.

Tips on Recognizing Bias

If any of these conditions exists, it may mean that there is an unresolved bias. Bias can sit like a pebble in a shoe, causing perceived discomfort out of line with the actual size of the issue. Bias usually develops in any of three areas—emotions, language, and/or content.


Are you getting an emotional response? The emotional response can be overt or hidden, but it usually comes from a negative bias. Stubbornness, anger, and being unreasonable are examples of overt emotional responses. Certain body language, silence, or passive resistance in fulfilling projects are hidden reactions indicating bias on related commitments.


Is the person using trigger words? Talking in absolutes, such as “can't,” “won't,” “ever,” “always,” and “never” are red flags that a bias is lurking. This also includes subjective terms such as “big,” “very,” and “lots.” This shows a limited understanding of the issues and/or a limited set of experiences.

Are the responses ambiguous? Ambiguous answers such as “that's the way we do things” or “because” may also show decisions based on a limited understanding of the issue and/or a limited set of experiences.


Does the position rest on unsubstantiated facts? If you believe the position is based on unsubstantiated facts, the information may be either masking a bias or be the source of the bias itself. In this case, simply asking for the source of the information or providing new information from credible sources may overcome it.

Is the position being attributed to others? Attribution to another person's or group's need can be seen from statements like, “Customer Service needs fresh reports every morning” or “The customers want to see the reference number on the report.” The key to overcoming attributed biases is to bring the issue immediately to the affected person for validation. Many of these so-called “requirements” will be dissolved by bringing all the parties together.

Recognizing Bias. This is the easy part. Simply look for Stubborn, Unsubstantiated, and Vocabulary differences—the SUV symptoms.

The first indication that biases exist is when otherwise rational people turn obstinate. If one person stubbornly holds to an opinion in the face of facts, or two people line up on either side of any disagreement, someone is probably carrying in baggage. If the disagreement becomes a standoff and both sides dig in for a pitched battle, you're looking at full suitcases and maybe a few carry-ons.

The second sign of biases emerging on your team are trigger words indicating unsubstantiated beliefs. Listen carefully for these, because with homogenous teams the bias may be shared and may not lead to any conflict. If team members respond to your challenges with ambiguous answers like, “That's the way we do things,” or subjective terms such as “big,” “important,” and “busy,” or use words like “can't” or “won't,” you're probably looking at a bias.

Let me illustrate: My company was brought in to help complete the conversion to a new computer system. The previous effort had dragged for two years, and with each customer record taking three months for completion, it became evident that it wasn't going to finish for some time more. When we took over the project, we were told that three different groups were involved in reviewing each record, “Because that's what the customer needs!” The solution was to get members of each of the groups into the meeting and ask each the same questions. As a team, we discovered that this process was originally put in place because of a lack of confidence arising from the first conversion, over two years ago. Set free by this revelation, all team members pulled together, debated each other's assumptions, agreed to be flexible in their solution, and in two hours designed a new process that converted the final 20 customers in less than two months.

For the unsubstantiated assertion, the key is in asking open-ended questions, such as, “Why do you say this?” and “What would happen if we did it this way?”

Shakespeare may have written, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but try ordering a bouquet of “smellies” from the florist. Bias can also take the form of differing vocabulary or industry-specific jargon. This is easier to deal with than a personal bias because there are usually no feelings or history to overcome. At the same time it can be most frustrating, because two people who until now may have been working well together may suddenly find themselves speaking different languages.

In designing an automated system for a brokerage house, for example, we found ourselves perplexed by the features and detail being requested to support the “end users.” The right questions eventually uncovered a language bias that had created the confusion. While “end user” meant data-entry person to the programmers, to the brokers it referred to the executives who were the ultimate recipients of the reports generated by the system.

Differing terminology may put two people on the same side of an argument without either realizing it. This occurs so often that we refer to it as “vehemently agreeing.”

Vocabulary biases are the easiest to address. There is no end to the number of deadlocked situations that have been resolved by someone stepping in and saying, “What do you mean when you say…?” In facilitated sessions, we also use the ubiquitous flipchart to track words with specific meaning, abbreviations, and jargon. Be especially aware of acronyms—does ATM mean the Automated Teller Machine or Asynchronous Transfer Mode? It depends on who is talking and who is listening.

The Solution. One of the most effective ways to rid a team of bias is through discovery and confrontation. Asking open-ended questions, such as “Why do you say this?” and “What would happen if we did it this way?” will help to bring the bias to light. Confrontation is another effective method. It is especially helpful when the bias comes from attribution. Bringing the person or group being referenced together can verify or disprove the assumption. If the bias rests on unsubstantiated facts, ask for the source.

BIASES ARE BELIEFS. Just because they tend to be deeply held doesn't make them wrong. It may be that the dissenter is correct. Yet, the team cannot accurately give the issue its due until the feeling itself and the reason behind it are brought clearly into the light. ■

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

September 2000 PM Network



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