bias for action

Developing ‘Bias for Action’ At Work + Answering Interview Questions On This Trait

What is Bias for Action?

Make-things-happen OR Go-with-the-flow?

How often have you faced this dilemma? Is there anything wrong with either? Not necessarily. There is indeed a nuance though – the first choice is about taking-action more explicitly, while the second choice leans towards, allowing the system to evolve.

Bias for Action stems from what I refer to as being ‘positively restless’; being restless enough to not accept inaction, not being paralysed through rigorous analysis, having a distaste for lack-of-urgency or frowning on inertia. 

A Bias for action is a restlessness that results in a positive outcome. More formal interpretation of this trait is the ability to take a decision and move forward, than to refrain because all possible scenarios are not yet known. As you can observe, I have expanded that formal meaning to a broader & deeper mindset of getting-the-job-done. 

Read on to delve into its applicability in a work context as well as how to refine the art of developing a bias for action.

In most work contexts, there is seldom a perfect solution or a perfect way. Rather than be paralysed by over-analysis, it is better to take a decision, back yourself and act on it. You are at least moving forward, learning and not stalling. This trait is desirable in almost every sphere of the workplace, especially so in managers & leaders. 

Is a bias for action important at your workplace?

The short answer is a vehement yes. 

Why? If you want to stand out, get things done and achieve your goals – you definitely need a healthy sense of urgency to reach outcomes. 

Bias for action is even more acutely required in large organisations. Large organisations are typically process heavy with clear demarcations of line management, departments etc. Such organisations also have measurements and metrics to assess the performance of teams and departments. Whilst unintended, there is a high chance of siloed behaviours. 

Getting to the final goal-post requires multiple teams to contribute and there is a fair bit of inter-dependency. However, periodically, things that are urgent for you may not necessarily be urgent for the person in another department. To succeed, the onus is on you to get the work done by colleagues, even if they are not in your reporting hierarchy. 

The positive restlessness attitude is an extremely important trait, which goes a long way in not only achieving your goals, but also expanding your presence/ network within the organisation

This trait leads to a healthy dose of bias for action. It gives you the ability to take a decision to move forward with the information at your disposal. You make an informed estimate of the risks and move forward, with the confidence that you will be able to deal with the risk if it shows up in the future. 

Picture this: while crossing a road, do you have all of the information to make it perfectly safe to cross? No, You don’t. Obviously, You do not know if the road has a crack or a wobble half way down. You do not know the exact speed of the car you can see afar. You do not know if the dog leash is strong enough to not snap allowing the dog to jump at you in the middle of the road! 

We think we have all the information. We don’t. Yet, we cross the road. That’s because we have become accustomed to assessing the risk & taking the decision to move ahead – and also have the self-confidence to deal with the risks it they show up. 

Take this scenario several notches up and you can start to appreciate its relevant to your work context!

Things to be wary of

The overarching desire to make a decision and see action shouldn’t however come at the cost of ignoring blatant warning signals or disregarding the risks completely. ‘Taking a decision’ versus ‘Taking an informed decision’. Significantly different. 

The pace at which one makes decisions should be correlated to the pace at which risks are being assessed and contingencies are put in place to avoid catastrophes. Informed decision making is underpinned by a robust knowledge of the inter-dependencies and surrounding environment. It necessitates the deep understanding of what is manageable and what is unmanageable risk. 

Furthermore, bias for action should not be misconstrued to be a licence to flout rules, guidelines and etiquettes. It should not entice a person into finding workarounds in the processes, deflect compliance and disregard accountabilities. For example: in the name of being a person with a high bias for action, you cannot approve travel bills for your colleague, when in fact, the approval must come from a staff of the finance department/ human resources. 

Can bias for action be learnt or developed? 

Have you, by any chance, come across Carol Dweck authored ‘Mindset’? Amazing and enlightening read. If you are the kind of person, who inherently subscribes to hard-work, embrace challenges & has a high degree of perseverance, then you already know that the answer is yes. Yes, bias for action can be developed through conscious effort. Try these 3 steps.

Step 1: Break down the big decisions into multiple smaller ones

Taking a very high impactful decision is sometimes scary. It is scary mainly because there are loads of uncertainties, thereby raising the risk profile in your mind. Unless you are a highly instinctive investment banker or better still, a poker player, most decisions at work cannot be taken as if you were in a casino. 

To make it easier, break down the big decision into smaller parts. See if you can take smaller decisions that take you step-by-step closer to the goal of your big decision. Take some steps or gather more information to reduce the chance of failure. If you make the decisions you need to make granular and bite-size, then you are constantly making progress. Moreover, taking smaller decisions also allow a safe way to re-orient if something doesn’t work. It is easier to recover from small decisions not meeting their interim goas. This technique helps keeping you moving, keeping you focused and allowing you to change course swiftly, if warranted. 

For example: while you have a 90 day goal for your work assignments, break it down into months, then into weeks and then (if possible) into days. What should your goal be in a month, hence what should it be this week and what should it be today? 

Step 2: Declutter the mind and eliminate the noise

In this connected world of today, there are distractions galore. Even at the workplace, there are real-time chat windows, video conference calls, workshops, email, phone calls etc. The context switching doesn’t help our focus. For adopting the bias for action, it is important to avoid looking at irrelevant topics and diverting your attention to things that do not matter. 

You ca declutter the mind by constantly reminding yourself of what is relevant information and what is irrelevant noise. Digest and process the relevant information. Bin the irrelevant noise.

Step 3: Do it frequently and make it a habit

Embracing this method in your work and life contexts will help nurture the skill. The more and more you do it, the better you get at it. A clichéd term – ‘practice makes perfect’ – is still very true! Recall Dr. Maxwell Maltz of the ‘50s? Based on his experiences, he had observed that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit. Try and adopt the method on a constant basis and persevere with it. Well, if not in 21 days, you will definitely be able to see visible change within a few weeks or months of dedicated effort. 

Introspect. We almost never will have ALL the information we need to make our decisions. We must, however, move forward. In a competitive workplace, moving forward also entails taking quick decisions. If we wait to get all the information, we will be paralysed. If we take decisions too hastily, we may fall off the cliff. Bias-for-action mindset aims to find the equilibrium by constantly making quick positive progress and being constructively restless.

Handling interview questions on bias for action

Let’s switch contexts and move into the intriguing journey of job interviews. A lot of seasoned interviewers actually look for this quality during the discussion. 

They are looking for these kind of the cues in your responses:

  1. Have you exhibited behaviours wherein you have rolled-up your sleeves and gotten things done?
  2. Have you supported the team in critical high pressure situations by being there and sharing the workload
  3. Are you more of a delegating-actions-person or someone who has a high say-do ratio
  4. Are you having the ability to navigate through uncertain situations and take the necessary decisions to move forward

Going by the above, your articulation and emphasis need to be subtly tailored accordingly. For example, while discussing a challenging situation you have overcome, ensure that you explicitly call out the detailed actions you took – and how those actions helped achieve the positive result. 

In other examples while dealing with uncertainty, walk the interviewer(s) through your entire thought process and how you arrived at the decisions you took. Whilst elaborating the thought process, make a mention of how you assessed risks, how you navigated through them, how you prioritised what risk is manageable and what is a hard constraint. Explain in some detail about how this approach helped you take steps to move forward, rather than be stuck in over-analysis. Do not forget to tell them about how you had to influence and convince your colleagues, thereby garnering support for your approach. 

Critical high intensity situations also bring out great examples of bias for action. When there were stiff deadlines and the team was struggling, it is important to communicate exactly what actions you took to help the team. Instead of adding to the pressure, you asked the team which tasks you can help on and then got on with it – allowing them to concentrate on their priorities. During those challenging weeks, you came up with the idea of daily huddles with the team, which ensured quick buy-in from every one of the decisions taken and clear ownership of the collective outcomes. This automatically resulted in decisions being taken to move forward at pace, keep a razor sharp focus and not stalling. 

These elaborations will help the interviewer assess your decision making skills, your attitude to move forward and your team collaboration aptitude. All these are positive traits that any interviewer is always looking for. 

You will possibly already have the skill – it is just that we usually need help in bringing out these more explicitly in our interview responses. It may even seem trivial or seem common-sense, and hence not worth mentioning. However, in an interview scenario, you have to make it easier for the interviewer to understand how your mind works – to assess if you have the right mindset to get the job. 

If you are looking for more in-depth pointers on preparing for a job interview or Interview Checklist may prove handy. You could down the checklist by dropping your mail ID below. 


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