Mentoring isn’t just for entrepreneurs — we all need help overcoming biases

In the past four years, I’ve mentored more than 40 startup companies and provided advice to hundreds more. The mentor relationship is common in the entrepreneurial community, as founders of startups are accepting any help they can garner.

However, seeking and developing a mentor relationship is less common in more established corporate business, which is unfortunate because a mentor can add insight at all levels of the organization.

One of the things that has fascinated me about being a mentor is that I can help even when I may know very little about the specifics of the business or issue. Part of it is employing framework thinking and general problem-solving skills, but I think the real magic is creating a source of external accountability and a reality check against biased thinking.


Recognize bias pitfalls

Entrepreneurs are a conflicted bunch. They operate in an environment of extreme uncertainty, hope against incalculable odds, take great personal risk and eventually attribute their success to hard-nosed perseverance.

I can count at least four well-known cognitive biases operating in their psychology: confirmation bias, gamblers fallacy, hindsight bias and illusion of control. My goal in mentoring founders is not to discourage, but for them to be aware of the many pitfalls in their own thinking.

If you start researching the wide range of cognitive biases, you will find more than 150 that affect decision-making, how beliefs are formed and our memory of events altered. The danger is that as leaders with the role and responsibility in our respective organizations to create vision and execute strategy, we rely on making well-informed decisions and occasionally making predictions on trends for our industry.


Be open to possible flawed judgment

I’ll delve into detail on one well-researched bias that leaders and experts are especially susceptible: the illusion of skill — covered in the book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends” and asked them to assess probabilities for short-term events.

Tetlock collected 80,000 predictions, and the results were shocking.

The experts performed worse than a random selection of outcomes — in fact, the more knowledgeable about a subject, the worse their predictions. Tetlock summed it up saying, “We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly.”

The lesson in this overview of cognitive biases is that we cannot always trust our own brain, or at least we should be open to the possibility of flawed judgment.


Seek an impartial mirror

That is where a good mentor can add value — by being an impartial mirror to our thinking process.

So I would suggest creating a culture in your company where establishing a mentor relationship is encouraged.
If you don’t already have one yourself, seek someone out that can provide a little more clarity for the decisions you need to make and be open to an outside perspective.