Do You Have a Success Bias?

It is a known fact that when humans are faced with a critical situation that requires sudden action from learnings we have encountered in the past, we become creatures of habit! 

Although we may be a complex evolving machine that can master various activities at once, much of our lives are governed by our emotional, behavioural or linguistical habits, rather than our conscious decisions, resulting in us conducting the same practices repeatedly. 

In the Business World This Doesn’t Always Translate to Success! 

One key factor that can get in the way of businesses continuing to succeed during times of change is what is known as the ‘success bias’. Success bias is where leaders believe that practices we conduct in the past that resulted in success, will essentially equate to us being successful in the future. 

Because of this mindset, any future scenario that is familiar will be addressed with the same behaviours, methodologies and systems simply because it was successful in a previous situation, not because it is relevant or appropriate for today. 

The success bias is essentially a ‘formula’ we apply that we know has worked in the past, that will hopefully bring the same success in the future. What this translates to, is us falling into a repetitive pattern of ‘comparing and replicating’ – comparing the situation to the past and replicating the process that was conducted before. We developed an assumption that we know is in favour to work again. 

A foundational rule to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world is adaptability and evolution. Every leadership team at some point has come to a position where they have exhausted all measures available to them in response to change. They have come to realise they either must adopt new processes of working or retreat to past activities that achieved a somewhat manageable level of success. In these cases, you can often find yourself justifying repetitive actions whereas it is encouraged to look back at the processes that were taken and the reasoning behind them.  

Business success is proven to be achieved by challenging what you would typically do – challenging your success bias. By falling into the trap of being complacent or arrogant, we automatically adopt the formula we usually default to and apply the processes of the past, without truly challenging whether it best suits the current circumstance. 

Enduring this pre-determined mindset can impact not only business growth and success, but personal growth as you continue to let your subconscious mindset choose the road to stability.  

How to avoid the trap of success bias? 

It is important to realise and understand that what’s best practice, is adopting the mindset that allowed you in previous situations to choose the correct approach, not the actual approach itself. It is about being wedded to a philosophy that made us successful in the past, but not too wedded to the process. By utilising that mindset, it will allow you to learn and create, objectively learning about the current situation you’re faced with and creating an appropriate solution for now. 

How do you make sure you’re not adopting the success bias? 

All your great learnings from the past should not be ignored however, you shouldn’t be reinventing your responses to adapt to every new change that occurs. Your past success should give you confidence, and this comes from tapping into the learnings from the past and using it as a new starting point every time.  

A good starting point to check if you have fallen into the success bias trap is, reviewing your personal approach to any team or company process/methodology that hasn’t been challenged for a while. Take the time to reflect: 

  • “When was the last time you challenged some of your core assumptions of what drives success and whether they’re applicable to your current circumstance? 
  • When was the last time you enjoyed being wrong? 
  • When was the last time you easily changed your mind on something? 
  • When was the last time you can concede going with another person’s idea, even when you were passionate about your own idea? 

These will all help you discover areas of success bias and allow you to not only identify the existing threads that are binding to past situations, but also allow you to reinvent new habits of responding to change that is relevant to the present. 


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