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How the self-serving bias might be undermining your workplace culture

August 10, 2022 - 15 min read
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    What does a healthy, psychologically safe workplace culture look like?

    If you think of a place where people feel comfortable speaking up, sharing openly, and bringing their whole selves to work, you’d be right.

    But there’s another part of a healthy workplace — the ability to own your errors and shortcomings. We don’t often talk about that freedom to fail, but when it’s not present, it’s nearly impossible to have real psychological safety at work. When it’s lacking, people are afraid to admit to their mistakes, blaming them instead on external factors to protect their standing in the group.

    In social psychology, this is known as a self-serving bias. It’s an innocent-seeming cognitive bias — after all, who doesn’t want to look good in front of their coworkers? But while it’s a common experience, it can have disastrous consequences.

    The self-serving bias might be undermining your relationships, your self-esteem, and your workplace culture. It may even be harming your career.

    Self-serving bias is also known as the self-serving attribution bias. The term refers to people who rationalize their own successes by attributing them to internal factors such as skills and talents. Conversely, they rationalize their failures by blaming them on external factors such as luck or chance.

    In other words, we tend to be more likely to take credit for our successes and blame others for our failures (or our circumstances when things go wrong). 

    The self-serving bias undermines people — both in and out of work — by making it more difficult to learn from mistakes and succeed in the future. Keep reading to learn where it comes from and what you can do to curtail it.

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    What is a self-serving bias?

    Imagine that you’re running late to work. You burst in the door, out-of-breath.

    “Sorry,” you gasp. What comes next?

    If you say, “I should have left earlier,” you’re taking responsibility for being late. But more likely, you’ll blame traffic, your spouse, or your alarm clock before you admit you could have done anything differently. This is a clear example of a self-serving bias in action.

    The opposite of the self-serving bias is the self-effacing bias. This is when we play down our accomplishments and internalize our failures. Just as the self-serving bias is rooted in truth, so is self-effacement. It might be accurate that we could have done better, worked harder, or not pressed snooze.

    These biases have to do more with how we internalize these explanations and how they influence our future behavior. Inaccurate external and internal attributions negatively impact our locus of control. We begin to feel that we’re no longer in control of what happens to us.

    We might justify our self-effacing bias as a strong work ethic or perfectionism, but it can damage self-efficacy and self-esteem. There are cultural differences in the likelihood of both biases. Self-effacing biases tend to be more prevalent in collectivist cultures. Individualistic or highly competitive cultures tend more toward self-serving bias.

    When do we engage in self-serving bias?

    When we don’t feel safe at work, we’re more likely to fall into the trap of the self-serving bias. Generally, the more it happens, the more likely it is that psychological safety is suffering in the workplace.

    Here are some examples of self-serving biases in different contexts:

    Reporting team performance

    A manager is concerned about reporting results to members of the executive team. When presenting, they emphasize positive outcomes, glossing over poor numbers in the report. When asked about the shortfall, they explain that several members of the team did not fulfill their parts of the project. They don’t mention their own involvement in the outcome.

    Receiving negative feedback

    An employee receives a negative evaluation from their supervisor. They begin complaining about their coworkers. They reason that if their colleagues had supported them more, they would have done better.

    Training and development

    In a company training, participants are given a quiz to test their understanding of a topic. When one participant doesn’t do well on the quiz, they get annoyed. They rationalize that if the facilitator had spoken more clearly, they would have gotten a good grade.

    Project management

    An affiliate at a large organization is unclear on who they need to speak to in order to get approval on a project. Instead of following up, they shift their attention to another project. When asked about the project status, they blame a lack of communication and their team’s poor decision-making process.

    Fiscal reporting

    When asked about their company’s recent layoffs, a CEO blames “the market” for their financial losses. They later decline to meet with the CFO to review strategies for stabilizing the company’s finances.


    Downsides of self-serving bias

    Ironically, even though we fall into a self-serving bias to make ourselves look better, it can actually harm us in the long run. This bias is exponentially worsened by a lack of self-awareness. We trick ourselves into thinking we’re beyond reproach and miss valuable cues that could be holding us back.

    Some of the downsides of self-serving bias include: 

    1. Reduced psychological safety

    When others engage in self-serving bias, people feel less safe around them. That means they're less likely to speak up, offer feedback, or do anything that seems like rocking the boat. When people don’t notice their own self-serving bias, it fuels impostor syndrome, leaving them afraid that they’ll be “found out.” 

    2. Reduced trust 

    Self-serving bias can make it difficult for managers or coworkers to get accurate feedback from their employees. They may think that anything negative said about them is just an expression of self-interest rather than a viable concern. A report in the Journal of Business Ethics explains that self-serving bias can fuel unethical behavior. It may even cause employees to mutiny.

    3. Reduced learning and growth

    Self-serving bias can make it difficult for people to learn from their mistakes or feedback. People are afraid that they will be judged if they admit their shortcomings. They may begin focusing on trying to stay “under the radar,” refusing to take risks or pursue self-improvement opportunities. External attributions for negative outcomes reduce the need to improve. It makes people and teams less likely to re-examine faulty patterns of thinking, beliefs, and strategies.

    4. Lower performance and decreased effort

    Self-serving bias can lead people to put in less effort since there’s less accountability for individual results. Feeling as if you may be blamed for someone else’s outcomes also has a detrimental impact on collaborations and cooperation. This effect occurs both in and out of the workplace.

    Self-serving bias at work

    In the workplace, the self-serving bias can lead managers to take credit for their team's successes. They may also attribute their team's failures (or their own shortcomings) to outside factors. This can lead to a lack of trust and respect from employees. 

    The self-serving bias can also lead employees to blame their failures on their coworkers or bosses. They avoid taking responsibility for their own mistakes. This can create a toxic work environment and hinder career growth. 

    Connection is critical for workplace success at the best of times. But US workers are currently in the midst of a connection crisis in the workplace. We can’t afford to put any more strain on interpersonal relationships between employees, managers, and leaders. 

    Cognitive distortions like the self-serving bias pit us against our coworkers. That lack of trust makes us less likely to invest in relationships at work. Positive events are less likely to feel like a shared accomplishment. Additionally, attributing negative outcomes to others breeds a victim mentality.


    How to identify and overcome self-serving bias

    So what can we do to overcome this tendency, both in and outside work? The first step is to understand why it happens. While it’s a common tendency meant to protect our self-esteem, it’s more likely to occur when we feel under threat.

    As a manager and a leader, there are some important steps you can take to improve psychological safety in your workplace. Here are 6 steps to help you identify and overcome this harmful tendency:

    1. Create a coaching culture

    An environment that supports personal development and growth is key to reducing the self-serving bias. Whether through peer coaching programs or professional coaching through BetterUp, coaching helps break the connection between personal development and implicit failure. Coaching cultures celebrate both successes and opportunities to learn from mistakes.

    2. Build self-awareness

    One of the first skills to develop in coaching is introspection. This skill is foundational to both mental fitness and personal development. When we cultivate self-awareness and self-acceptance, we reduce the threat that comes from owning our shortcomings. Better yet, we become empowered to ask for support in shoring up those shortcomings.

    3. Aim to develop accuracy

    While we don’t want to eschew responsibility for our errors, mistakes, or shortcomings, we also don’t want to fall into the self-effacing bias. Poor results aren’t always your fault, and they aren’t never your fault. Successful outcomes aren’t always because of your efforts, and they aren’t never because of your efforts. Accurate self-evaluation helps us strike the balance between the two.

    Journaling is a good exercise to build self-awareness and accuracy. When you catch yourself blaming someone (including yourself), try making a list of factors on both sides. Write what you could have done differently, and then write what you did well. Write what you wish others had done differently, and then what they did that was helpful. Paying attention to all causal attributions — not just the ones your brain is primed to notice — will help you take a more balanced approach.

    4. Build a culture of feedback

    When feedback only happens when someone is “in trouble,” employees and managers alike will start to resist giving feedback. And, in fact, when most people think of feedback they assume it will be negative feedback.

    As a leader, work to build a culture where feedback (positive, negative, or anything in the middle) is the norm. At BetterUp, we embrace this through two of our High-Impact Behaviors — Work to Learn and Stay on Your Edge. We understand that people who are taking creative risks at work will only feel empowered to do so when they know it’s okay to make mistakes.

    Consider implementing feedback in your weekly one-on-one meetings as well as regular 360 reviews. Employees and managers alike benefit from regular touchpoints and opportunities for growth.

    5. Emphasize the importance of self-compassion

    Success and failure don’t have to be a zero-sum game. If we treat it like it is, we’ll always feel the need to protect ourselves — and we’ll always tend towards a self-serving bias. After all, it’s the only thing that makes sense when our self-worth is at risk.

    When you have the urge to distance yourself from your errors, it’s an attempt to preserve your self-image and how you present yourself to others. With self-compassion, you find that you need to rely less heavily on self-enhancement. You may still run into challenges. But if you’re gentle with yourself and open to where you need to improve, you’ll feel more in control and less under threat.

    6. Look for opportunities to recognize others

    Every cognitive bias has a psychological purpose. When people engage in self-serving bias, they’re trying to manage their self-presentation. In other words, they care about what others think of them and what they think about themselves. Distancing themselves from poor outcomes assuages cognitive dissonance and helps to protect against low self-esteem.  

    You can support them (and reduce the psychological need for self-serving bias) with recognition. When your team knows that you’re quick to praise their efforts, they’re more open to developmental feedback. 

    Give yourself — and your team — the freedom to fail

    When people don’t feel safe at work, the costs go well beneath the surface. It’s not just that teams are less productive. The real pain point is that they stop taking risks. It takes an enormous amount of psychological safety and trust to innovate at work. But it also takes safety and trust to open up around your coworkers. Without these factors, people don’t innovate. They don’t bring their whole selves to work. And, as a result, they don’t engage or perform the way they could if they felt supported.

    As a manager and as a leader, you have a tremendous influence on the culture of your workplace. Creating a trusting culture starts with you and how you interact with your team. And as a leader, what you do is more important than what you say. If your team sees you dodging responsibility and blaming others for missed goals, they won’t step up either. Becoming aware of your own self-serving bias will help them recognize theirs.

    Encourage a workplace that embraces feedback as a daily occurrence and a necessary part of growth. Developing a coaching mindset can foster that kind of environment and build trust within your team. Most importantly, believe that your team wants to show up, do meaningful work, and grow into the best version of themselves that they can be. Help them get there.

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    Published August 10, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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