Whenever I’m discussing communication skills with managers, I often find myself challenging them on their assumptions about what other people (peers, manager, team members) might be thinking in specific situations.

“How do you know?”  How do you know what they are thinking, if you haven’t asked them?  If you’ve not asked them, then you can only be making an assumption.  This may be based on your experience with that individual, knowledge of the situation, and memory of what you have discussed previously.  But how do you know you are correct?

As humans we are all subject to our unconscious biases, and the one probably at play here is known as Projection Bias.  One way of thinking about it is “If I don’t know what you think, I’ll assume you’ll think what I think.”  Rather than work out what every person might think/feel/prefer, we make the assumption that they are like us and therefore they think/feel/like/dislike/decide the same way as we do.

Unconscious biases are very important to us, given the amount of information coming our way throughout the day.   We are very good at working out patterns – eg. how much pressure to put on the pedal when you need to stop your car, recognising faces (even on a piece of toast!), or working out several moves ahead during a game of chess.  By being able to detect patterns that are common, we free up much needed processing power in the brain.   More often these are correct and very useful to us.

However, it is also important to remember that we use the information that is available to us, especially if that information is easily available, so you could be missing or not looking for important information that is harder to find.  These patterns provide us information that drives our behaviour and can become short cuts for our decision making processes.  However, sometimes we can be too quick to detect a pattern and can miss a vital piece of information or a difference that is important in this particular situation.

If you are in a meeting, it’s easy to assume that all those in the room are thinking, deciding and feeling the same way as you, especially if they are not specifically saying otherwise.  How often have you come out of a meeting thinking that all were on the same page, to only later discover that what you thought had been agreed was very different to what others thought?

One way of helping to review whether you are using an unconscious bias is to make it conscious.  Ask the questions to clarify, discuss all the assumptions, challenge your own thinking.  Breaking it down and having a discussion about it allows you to make distinctions and potentially look at different options available to you.  Your team will receive better communication from you, and it’s the first step to making even better and wiser decisions.

When have you noticed yourself using Projection bias?


Please contact us if you are interested in finding out how Executive Coaching and Applied Neuroscience can help you develop better communication skills and understand more unconscious biases you use on a daily basis.


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