To what extent do we consider biases in our practice as coaches? by Lynne Hindmarch

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In this blog-article I will discuss areas of cognitive bias that I have come across consistently in my coaching practice, my experience of transference, and the implications for coaching.  The focus is quite narrow; the number of biases is large, and I have restricted this article to those which I have observed most frequently,

  1. ‘Blind spot’ bias,
  2. Halo effect,
  3. Self-serving’ bias,
  4. Catastrophizing, and
  5. Transference.

What do I mean by cognitive bias? 

Cognitive biases may help us to process information more quickly and efficiently; however, they can lead to serious mistakes or errors in judgement.  It is a flaw in cognitive processing (such as reasoning, evaluating or remembering).  Humans have many hundreds of biases, and as coaches, we need to be aware of these, both to attend to our own biases, and help our clients attend to theirs.

Biases come into play from the outset of the coaching relationship, with expectations on both sides which may be unrealistic.  The discussions around the coaching agreement (‘how shall we work together?’) provide an opportunity to explore and resolve some of these issues. 

1. ‘Blind spot’ bias

Indeed, one of our biases is the ‘blind spot’ bias, in that we see ourselves as rational beings, and are blind to our biases.  We tend to hang on to biases (beliefs), even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. 

I can hold my hand up here.  Some years ago I was working with a small group (about 10) of city traders.  Whilst using a personality assessment with this group, I noticed what appeared to be a particular character trait emerging consistently across the group. I thought this was interesting as it might, for example, have relevance to the career path they had chosen.  I mentioned this to a fellow psychologist who is better at the statistical analysis than I am, and he did the number crunching.  He told me that there was no statistical significance in what I had observed. In other words, my reasoning was faulty, and the stats didn’t back it up.  However, in the face of this clear evidence, for some days I maintained my position, until I realised that I was hanging on to an unhelpful belief, and ditched it.

The more we can be aware of our cognitive biases the better.

2. ‘Halo effect’

Indeed, one area I work in (using personality assessments in selection) is to help disrupt the tendency to make selection decisions based on biases in judgement, such as the ‘halo effect’.   This bias emerges when our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character.  In selection decisions, this is commonly expressed as ‘I can tell within the first few seconds if this person is going to be any good or not’.  Careful selection processes, which focus on gathering evidence, can help to challenge the halo effect.   I have seen the consequences of the halo bias when it is left unchallenged, with unsuitable candidates hired with all the difficulty and expense that a poor decision can make.  Not only that, another consequence can be that the unsuitable hire has been kept on, even when they are underperforming, because the hirer is reluctant to admit that their judgement was wrong. 

Understanding biases, both in ourselves and in our clients, is very important.  Indeed, one useful function of the coaching process is to help clients understand more clearly the place that biases play in ourselves and others.  We are all subject to them.  Bringing these biases more fully into consciousness (while accepting that full awareness in unlikely) can be a vital part of the coaching process.

3. Self-serving bias

This is one of the most common biases, the self-serving bias.  This is a tendency to attribute positive events to our own character but attribute negative events to external factors.  For example, a client may believe that their success at chairing a meeting was due to their own particular skill set, or a poorly received presentation was caused by a hostile audience, or a poor time slot, or uncomfortable seating. 

However, I have observed that on occasion the self-serving bias is flipped, or turned on its head, and can be a sign of low self-belief.  In my early days of coaching I recall a client telling me about her part in a successful project, but her attributions were inverted; she was understating her part in the project, putting it down to a variety of environmental factors (even though I knew that her contribution had been significant), while extolling the cleverness of other team members.  Using the self-serving bias as a framework, we were able to discuss how her language revealed her underlying lack of confidence, and take steps to address it.  Helping people to recognise the bias in their thinking can help them begin to identify their own strengths and build their beliefs in their own abilities.

On the other hand, the self-serving bias, if it is held very firmly, can be a block to development, as the person sees no need for it.  They can explain away lack of career advancement, for instance, by stating it is down to environmental factors, such as office politics, or favouritism, or a bit of bad luck.  This person is less likely to learn from their mistakes.  This can also be career-limiting, as the person may not respond well to coaching.  However, if the client is prepared to engage with the process, the coach can help them to be more clear-sighted about their strengths and weaknesses.  Personality assessments can provide a powerful framework for those kinds of conversation. 

4. Catastrophising

This may be observed in clients who are experiencing stress, and of course catastrophising makes it far worse.  It can be especially noticeable in clients who are very structured in their approach (planned, well-organised) and like a good deal of control.  Confronted by a situation where there is a good deal of ambiguity, very little certainty and a feeling of lack of control, their imagination can run riot and anxiety is heightened.  I worked with a client who was looking for another role after being made redundant from a senior position, where he had experienced a good deal of success and moved smoothly up the career ladder.  Although he still had a year’s salary to live on, mentally and emotionally he moved quickly in his imagination to having no money, losing his house and family, divorce, homelessness and living on the streets.   To counteract this kind of ‘catastrophising’ it can be helpful to gently point out the biases in their thinking, to encourage the client to think about other potential outcomes that are more positive, and to ask them to consider the likelihood, realistically, of the catastrophic event actually happening.  A frequent question of mine, when confronting biases, is: ‘Where’s the evidence for that?’.

5. Transference

In the final part of this piece, I want to explore the area of transference, which is a form of bias.  This was first identified by Freud, and is still mostly related to psychoanalysis.   Transference occurs when the client redirects feelings from a person in their past (usually termed a ‘significant other’) on to the therapist (the example most regularly cited is the client directing feelings about the mother on to the therapist).  The therapist needs to be aware that they may reciprocate with counter-transference, that is, for example, responding to the maternal transference by treating the client as a child.  I have been the recipient of transference, and as I am not a therapist, I took it to supervision, where we discussed the situation in some depth.  I guess most coaches have experienced it.  However, what I am more interested in exploring here is the idea (not widely reported but possible) that transference is a lot more common than is often acknowledged.  Miranda et al (2007) argue that ‘transference occurs in everyday life, when such representations of significant others are triggered, and that it is thus a process by which people re-experience past relationships in their everyday social relationships and interactions.’  In this context, Miranda et al define significant others as:  ‘family members, romantic partners, friends, or others whom individuals consider important and who have had an impact on their lives. This may include people whom they like or love (i.e., whom they regard positively), along with those whom they regard negatively, whether currently or no longer in their lives.’

The idea of transference being an everyday occurrence leads me to describe an event that took place with a female client, whom I was profiling using personality assessments.  This involved two sessions: the first was meeting her, gathering some background information, and administering the assessments.  I was sitting opposite her for this meeting.  The second meeting, a week or so later, was the feedback session to discuss the results. This time I was sitting next to her.  The immediate and powerful thing that struck me was that in profile she looked very much like a woman I had been very friendly with some years previously.  Face on, the resemblance was not obvious – only in profile.  The person I connected this to was the mother of a friend of my son, and we had spent quite a bit of time together some years’ previously, when the boys were small.  In actual fact (because I had the profile in front of me) the client was nothing like my friend in personality.  But the transference was quite strong, and even though I knew intellectually what was happening, it was hard not to react as I would have done if my friend had actually been present.  The point here is that the transference triggered a form of bias.  I was reacting to this person based on their physical resemblance to someone in my past; even with their profile in front of me I was struggling to make an accurate assessment of their character.  In this case the transference was positive, but it could just as easily have been negative.

The experience made me consider how often transference happens and the implications for coaching.  If my experience of transference in this instance was conscious, how often does it happen unconsciously, below the level of awareness?  How common is transference in these everyday situations, just because an individual resembles another person in some way? What does this mean in our practice as coaches – both in how we react to clients, and also how our clients react to us?  Not only that, but what does it mean in the stories clients relate to us about their difficulties with others?  Is one possibility to consider that negative transference is taking place? It suggests the value of asking a simple question, either to oneself or to the client: ‘To what extent does X remind you of another person in your past?’. 


To summarize

In this article I have explored some of the biases I have come across in my work with clients, mainly in coaching, but also in selection.  I have also discussed my experience of transference, and how it may be more common than is typically recognised. 

  • To what extent have you come across biases in your coaching practices and how have you managed them? 
  • And what is your view of the frequency of transference, not only in the helping relationship, but in everyday life?

To connect with Lynne Hindmarch

References:
Miranda, R., & Andersen, S. M. (2007). The therapeutic relationship: Implications from social cognition and transference. In P. Gilbert & R. L. Leahy (Eds.), The therapeutic relationship in the cognitive behavioral psychotherapies (pp. 63-89). New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Further reading:
Davidovich, D (2017). Are we biased? Exploring Biases in Coaching Practice.
http://www.instituteofcoaching.org/blogs/are-we-biased-exploring-biases-coaching-practice
Kahneman, D (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books Ltd. London