Action bias is a common setback for business leaders. So what is it and how do you avoid it?

Do you love to check things off your list? I do. Sometimes I’ll even write things on my list that I’ve already completed just so I can check them off!

It feels good to get things done. We are making progress towards our goals, cleaning up messes, following through on commitments to ourselves and others. And yet, at work, if we move into action too quickly and don’t take the time to get in alignment with our team, we run the risk of spending our energy on solving the wrong problem or moving in the wrong direction.

Recently a coaching client was describing a troubling trend in his organization.

His leadership team would discuss a problem, decide on a course of action, and then get into action. After a few weeks on this path, the decision would come up for discussion again and a new decision would be made, one that required new and different actions. This was not an isolated event, but a pattern!

This client was discouraged, feeling like he and his team had wasted weeks going down the wrong path, again and again.

Occasionally quick pivoting between actions and decisions has to happen as new information emerges, or we realize we need to change course. However, when it becomes a pattern, ta different issue may be at play. For this team, though they were having conversations, they were not spending enough time to really identify the problem they were trying to solve, which meant that they were constantly wasting time solving the wrong problem.

What Is Action Bias?

The situation described above is a classic case of action bias. Action bias generally refers to the tendency for people to take action or make decisions even when doing nothing may be a better course of action. It is the belief that taking action, any action, is better than sitting still, even if the action has little chance of success or may be harmful.

Mike Sturm, a writer on productivity and self-improvement, puts it perfectly: action bias is “the tendency to think that value can only be realized through action”.

When we’re honest with ourselves, the vast majority of us have experienced this bias before. The compulsion to act becomes overwhelming, the fear of stagnation itches at the back of our brains, we become restless to move before every facet has been properly talked through. Sometimes when we are pressured for time, the tension builds as we talk about an issue until someone insists that a decision be made so we can move into action.

Action bias can manifest in many different environments, such as in sports, where coaches or players may feel the need to make a change even when the team is doing well, or in investing, where investors may feel compelled to buy or sell stocks even when the best course of action is to hold steady. The most frequent setting for action bias, however, is surely in workplaces and management. Even seasoned leaders in oft-frantic business environments are not immune to a bias for action.

Unfortunately, we have found that a vulnerability to this bias can make managers far less effective.

Controlling The Impulse To Leap

Sky diving representing action

Yes, action is vital. We’ve often discussed the importance of “goal-getting”, setting milestones, and moving forward towards well-articulated checkpoints. But how do we balance problem identification with action? Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes identifying the problem and 5 minutes solving it.” Our brains may scream at us during the identification process, saying that we’re using our time inefficiently, but in most cases this is the opposite of reality.

We sometimes avoid the problem identification process because we think we don’t have time for the conversations. We just want to move; we just want to get into action. This, however, produces more mistakes than successes.

Conversations can feel messy and time-consuming. Sometimes they may lead to disagreements or conflicts. So to avoid this discomfort, we avoid the conversation altogether. And yet, to waste time solving the wrong problem is far more costly.

Time for Self-Reflection!

A woman thinking self reflection

Another crucial aspect of effective management that we emphasize at Churchill Leadership Group is emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ requires a high degree of self-awareness, the ability to reflect, and to identify where your own bias towards action may exist. Where do you tend to just jump into action?

The next time you feel yourself wanting to rush the conversation, make a decision, or move into action, consider if it might serve you to spend a little more time exploring the issue and gaining alignment. This measured approach is critical for effective managers to master. At Churchill Leadership Group, we provide a Leadership Coaching Program for Managers that is customized to help managers address action bias, among many other areas of growth, strategy, and self-reflection.

Get in touch with us for more details on this game-changing program!

Dr. Pat Baxter


Katie Fredricksen, MA, CPCC, PCC, CDTLF
Katie is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator and Executive Coach who supports transformation in organizations by focusing on their most important asset – their people. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Stanford University and a master’s degree in psychology; drama therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies. More recently she was trained by Brené Brown in Dare to Lead™ and facilitates the work of developing brave leaders and more courageous cultures.
Learn more about her.

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