Understanding Self-Serving Bias in The Workplace

Making mistakes at work is normal. However, if people begin to avoid blame, self-serving bias may be creeping into your work culture. Self-serving bias is a way of thinking that makes a person see themselves in a more favorable way than they really are. In essence, it’s the reason why many people believe that the success they’ve achieved is purely down to them alone. It may sound like a minor issue but it’s a bias that has the potential to disrupt productivity at best and mean the difference between life or death at worst. 

In this article, we’ll provide an insight into what self-serving bias is, how it is dangerous in the workplace, and how to avoid it. We’ll also share some practical tips for managers and team leaders on how to deal with self-serving bias in the workplace before it takes over. 

What does self-serving bias mean?

If someone demonstrates self-serving bias, it suggests that they are more likely to blame others for their failures than themselves. We often rely on this cognitive bias to protect and boost our self-esteem. But in the workplace, it can make even the most humble fail to see their own shortcomings or errors. 

This bias is incredibly common in our lives, and it can be overcome by practicing self-compassion. 

Our brains are biased when it comes to making decisions because we are primed to see the world exclusively from our perspective. These biases are caused by issues with memory and attention, and they can often be dangerous in group environments. However, they help people make sense of the world and make fast decisions, which is why it’s key for survival. 

But when this bias comes up in a scenario that is not life-threatening, it can affect others socially and professionally. If we work to decrease instances of self-serving bias in the workplace, managers can achieve everything from increasing overall productivity to speeding up the hiring process

Why can self-serving behavior be damaging at work?

Self-serving behavior at a managerial level can be damaging to workplace culture and employee retention. Having an ethical climate at work (particularly one that keeps self-serving behavior in check) decreases the likelihood of having difficult employees

According to a study published by the Journal of Business Ethics, the relationship between self-serving leader behavior and employees’ desire for retaliation and supervisor-directed deviance is stronger when unethical actions fueled by self-serving bias and other similar issues are present. 

In other words, if your workplace allows managers and leaders to regularly act on their self-serving bias, your employees will notice and they won’t be happy about it. 

Similarly, when self-serving bias is acted upon at the employee level, the consequences are noticeable. These include everything from quitting to leaving job-related tasks unfulfilled. At the very least, a self-serving employee is unable to perform their job to their highest potential. They can also decrease morale for the rest of the team. 

It may seem like common sense, but when one employee sees another get away with unfair behavior, it makes them feel less motivated to align with expectations. After all, why should everyone else follow the rules if the self-serving employee is getting away with not doing so?

In extreme cases, self-serving bias can quite literally be the difference between life or death, especially when it is found in the medical field. According to research by Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein, even the most well-meaning doctors are susceptible to self-serving bias. 

“Transplant surgeons, for example, must often decide how to allocate scarce organs between potential recipients. To maintain favorable statistics, their self-interest may not be to transplant those who would benefit most in terms of increased survival, but instead those where the probability of a successful operation is highest,” writes Babcock and Loewenstein. 

“Based on the research we have reviewed, it seems likely that transplant surgeons' views of who benefits most from the transplant will be distorted by their interest in ‘cream-skimming,’” they conclude.

In other words, self-serving bias isn’t always meant to be selfish, even if the end result favors the decision-maker. It can often be perpetrated by the very systems we utilize in the workplace every day. 

Even if your firm doesn’t deal with matters as high stakes as organ transplants, you may be surprised to discover the hidden ways self-serving bias negatively affects your team’s ability to conquer workplace terrors, despite the best of intentions. 

Fundamental attribution error vs self-serving bias

The concept of self-serving biases emerged during the 1960s and 1970s.

It was discovered by Fritz Heider who was studying attribution at the time. His results proved the theory that people tend to believe things go well because of how great they are at whatever skills are needed to accomplish the task. And when things go wrong, it’s because of a negative situation or a third party. 

Take test grades for example. It’s not uncommon for people to blame a bad grade on a teacher but take all the credit for themselves when they earn top scores. 

Not sure what the difference is between self-serving bias and the concept of attribution? 

These two concepts have a symbiotic relationship. Think of the concept of attribution as the cause and the self-serving bias theory as the result. 

Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

Fundamental Attribution Self-Serving Bias
Not taking responsibility for negative outcomes Taking responsibility for positive outcomes
Focuses on situational factors Focuses on internal factors
Negatively reinforces distrust and pessimism Positively reinforces ego
The root cause of self-serving bias and other related biases A type of fundamental attribution
Systematic error in judgment Self-defense mechanism


Examples of self-serving bias in the workplace

Self-serving bias is all about taking credit for work success regardless of the situation. Here are some examples: 

  1. A vendor accepting praise for the on-time delivery of materials one week but blaming shipping freight issues for other delayed packages the next. 
  2. A manager evaluating their team’s performance solely based on the aspects their own supervisor will be looking out for in the manager’s own performance review. 
  3. A team lead assumes responsibility for the success of a project they oversaw rather than crediting it all to their colleagues who created the product. 
  4. A collaborator choosing to believe their increased productivity has more to do with their own time management skills than the new project management software they’ve adopted. 
  5. A business owner failed to recognize the support of their staff who helped them win an entrepreneurial achievement award. 

How to avoid self-serving bias at work

There are plenty of ways to avoid self-serving bias at work and create an environment where employees are encouraged to maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem while also growing their skill sets. As a leader, it’s your job to implement the self-work and workplace culture listed in these suggestions: 

Show gratitude

When a product is successful, the best thing you can do to defeat self-serving bias is to publicly thank the people who helped make it possible. 

This can be something as simple as sending out a celebration message tagging the appropriate team members on your instant messaging platform. Or it can be something formal like a congratulatory dinner after a large or long-term project is complete.  

Whatever you do, just make sure to look around you and ask yourself whether or not you really could have done this on your own.

Keep a journal

Journals are a great way to keep track of your growth over time. 

At the end of each workday, take a moment to consider what you did well and one thing you like to improve on tomorrow.  Building this habit will help you see your own work from a more subjective place. 

Encourage employees to do the same and hold an accountability group if people are interested in participating.  

If journaling turns out to be an effective tool for you, consider setting aside even more time to evaluate your skills on a big-picture level.

Set intentions

As a leader in the workplace, you have a responsibility to determine how you want projects to go. A great way to consciously practice this is to set intentions for your day, week, month, or for every assignment.  

You can set the simple intention to continually monitor your own self-serving bias throughout the day.  Or you can look for ways to improve when you do encounter a stumbling block. 

Share your intentions with your team so that you have a shared vision you're all working toward.

Systemize feedback

The best way to systemize feedback is to clearly track who is responsible for what and whether or not they've achieved the goal for their portion of the project.  

A visual project management tool will make it easy to evaluate performance at a glance. You'll also be able to fairly provide feedback since details such as due dates and expectations will be clearly laid out.  

Go a step further and create a rubric for performance that is based on key performance indicators rather than opinions.

Need a place to start? Why not brainstorm solutions for self-serving bias together. 

Identify motivations

Consider whether or not your team members have an internal or external locus of control. 

An internal locus of control assumes that actions and outcomes are an individual's responsibility. An external locus of control assumes that actions and outcomes are the responsibilities of outside forces. 

Those with an internal locus of control are motivated by themes of self-improvement. 

But those with an external locus of control thrive when project elements that impact their work are thought out and managed well. This allows them to release the stress of monitoring those aspects and instead concentrate on their own contributions. 

And if things do go wrong, they’re more likely to see how their actions may have affected the outcome when all other elements are in place. 

Welcome feedback

It's important to create an environment in which other managers, employees, and collaborators feel comfortable providing constructive criticism and feedback on everyone else’s work. 

If giving and receiving feedback graciously is part of your workplace culture, it will be easier to identify self-serving bias before it gets out of hand.  

This also means providing a safe way to communicate these ideas. Some employees may feel like they can't speak to higher-ups about ways we can make their management style more compatible with the team. 

But in order for the step to work, feedback must go both ways. Not only will this make employees feel more empowered, but it will also keep self-serving bias in check among management.

Focus on process

At the end of the day, self-serving bias is all about taking credit or putting the blame on someone else for the end product. But the truth is, the most important part of any project is the process. 

The process will help you determine who is responsible for what, while clearly setting expectations. That way, even if an employee is struggling with self-serving bias, they’ll be able to see for themselves what tasks they've completed and how their work will affect the rest of the project as a whole.

When you have Gantt charts right in front of you, it's hard to shy away from personal responsibility. Using tools such as color-coded tasks to assign responsibilities and making timelines visible for all project members helps everyone look at their own role more subjectively. 

Want to limit the influence of common cognitive biases in the workplace and get more done? Use Wrike to clearly plan out responsibilities and subjectively evaluate performance using data-backed reporting. Start your two-week free trial today. 

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