Self-serving’ bias is the tendency to attribute success internally and failure externally. Although self-serving bias is normal and may serve a good purpose such as enhancing self-esteem, more often than not it merely serves to protect the ego from threat and injury.
Consistently ignoring ones’ responsibility in negative events can perpetuate illusions and error; sabotaging learning, relationships, and career. A manager who takes credit for teams’ success but shifts responsibility to others in events of failure, may be showing self-serving bias. Similarly, for a job applicant believes he/she has been hired because of qualifications, and excellent interview, but for a failed interview, they say the interviewer didn’t like them.
Or a student who attributes good grades to their own intelligence and preparation, but poor grades to the teacher’s poor teaching or unfair test questions. Even in matters of personal growth, self-serving bias can show itself in the tendency to blame external factors when we fail to meet our personal objectives. Definitely, self-serving bias is thus something to be cognizant about and take action to overcome. However, overcoming self-serving bias does not mean forgoing giving credit to self when it is due. It rather means recognizing that self-serving bias occurs naturally to many people, but like most biases, the crux is recognising it and deliberately refusing to obey its instructions. But what are some practical ways to ensure that we don’t get blind-sided by self-serving bias?
Openness to learning
As Isaac Asimov once said “your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in”.
New learning is the light that we must all allow into our minds.
Letting this light in means checking our assumptions every now and then to ensure that they have not blinded us from receiving fresh perspectives.
A truly open mind to learning knows that there is something to learn from every one, and that knowledge is dynamic and learning is lifelong. Being stuck with obsolete knowledge may foster biases and assumptions that do not serve us. An essential rule of thumb here is to ask, ‘what is the other person seeing that I may be missing?” This is a liberating signal that may smother our biases, allowing us to start seeing things from a new perspective. Ultimately, the goal is not to agree with the other person, but simply to try to understand their perspective, even when we eventually disagree.
Oprah Winfrey once commented that in her more than two decades of interviewing people from all walks of life; from presidents of countries, to tycoons and celebrities, they had one thing in common – they would ask at the end of the interview, “how did I do?”
Getting firsthand feedback is the golden opportunity that many people miss. It could be because of preconceived assumptions that one is good at what he/she does, and hence doesn’t see value in seeking feedback, or any other reason.
Whatever the case, ‘how did I do?’ is one of the most powerful tools in anyone’s growth toolbox.
Nurturing the ability to improve
Improving is actually an ability that can be built and nurtured. Research has shown that when people cannot improve, they are more likely to attribute failure externally. But ‘cannot improve’ is a strong statement. While we all face difficult situations where we find it hard to improve, the fact is that everyone has the ability to improve at something.
As the Swahili say, ‘Safari moja huanzisha nyingine:’ one improvement leads to another. A sense of achievement often fuels motivation and determination. This means that instead of focusing on the difficult situations which are hard to improve, one can make a conscious effort to seek inspiration from the areas where they have improved.
That is also forms the basis to knowing that one can in fact, improve. Then, once we know that we can improve, we are more open to seeking more avenues for improvement.
We are more open to seeking feedback and to learning from others, leading to more improvement in other areas.
The more improvement is seen, the stronger the ability to improve gets, and the less likely we are to being derailed by self-serving bias.
Epiphania Kimaro writes about careers, personal growth and issues affecting youth and women