Using Facilitation to Mitigate Bias in a Team Setting

From apppm
Jump to: navigation, search



Bias is the instinctive feeling we have towards people, potentially without having a reason for the feeling that appears. But feelings play a strong part in how we act towards and treat other people. Making unconscious decisions on how you feel about someone will influence your opinion on them. [1] Some well-known biases are gender and racial bias. Neuroscientist Erik Kandel estimated that 80-90% of the human brain works unconsciously meaning that even though you try to be unbiased, a part of you will still exhibit a form of bias. [2]

Your biases are often something you have developed from social influence and often not with bad intent, but it affects how we behave and perceive things from our peers[1]. In a team setting, bias affects how we perceive our colleagues and behave towards them and it is therefore under the scope of project management - as can be seen in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge section [3]. This also means that the unconscious bias of a project manager can have critical impact on the project setup. The team may not be optimal due to some biases during the hiring process and it can create problems during the project work. The diversity that was needed for the project success will have been stifled by biases[4].

The goal of the article is to highlight how unconscious bias affects teams, where in the project lifecycle the biases appear and how to mitigate them. This article will present several examples of unconscious bias. It will then present ways to combat and mitigate these unconscious biases presented beforehand. Finally, the article will touch on what limitations there are on working against unconscious bias.

The Big Idea

What is Bias?

Bias, specifically unconscious or implicit bias is underlying thoughts and stereotypes, that attribute to the attitude a person has to another person or group. It is thoughts that affect how a person understands and engage with other people and groups [5]. It is a processing and interpretation of the information in the surrounding world. It is the brains attempt to process and simplify information to reach decisions fast [6]. Commonly known biases are gender and racial bias, but there are many unconscious biases that specifically come into play when working in a project team. Some of these biases are described below.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

A well-known example of a bias that affects the individual more than those around them is the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people believe they are more knowledgeable and skilled than they are[7]. It is an example of poor self-awareness and low ability to estimate what they are capable of. It is a psychological effect that when present in someone leads that person to overestimate their skill, fail to realise that other people may be smarter and admit to their own mistakes [6]. Because of this the Dunning-Kruger Effect can become troublesome for a project manager if one of more team members believe their knowledge and skill level to be what it is not. It can affect the ability to meet deadlines and reach the success intended for the project. This can also apply to the project manager themselves. A project manager affected by this bias will generally be failing to meet their goals and have no idea why it is happening[8]. It can also be said that people experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect suffer from over-optimism.

Conservatism Bias

As the name would suggest this bias regards the mental aversion some people have to new information – whether it be knowledge or new ways of working. This is especially well-known in the financial sector[8]. It could also be a project manager refusing to incorporate new software or workways in their new projects. They cling to what they already know even if potential better solutions are readily available. This could also present in a team where some team members have worked on the same thing for a long time before joining. They will be hesitant to work in new ways and with new systems.

Combating conservatism bias is not just trying to accept all new information that you receive. You will still have to be critical of new information and find a balance between what is already known and the new information given[9].

Affinity Bias

Affinity Bias is the tendency we have of favouring people with whom we share interests or similarities. It is this bias that sometimes makes us feel that we are going to like someone without knowing much about them [9][5]. An example could be a team with several software programmers. If a new programmer joins the team, that person may automatically steer towards the other programmers because they will have things in common – an action based on a similarity they share without knowing any of the people yet. This can also show in a hiring process where a project manager putting together a team may lean towards people of the same type as themselves[9].

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and focus on the information that proves preconceived opinions, regardless of if it is the truth or not[9][10]. This bias does not necessarily affect other team members as much as other biases but will still influence the result and success of a project since information can end up being incorrect and hinder progress. It can also affect the team on a people level e.g. together with affinity bias. If you share interests with a team member and already tend to want to choose them for something additional affinity bias can join in on top of that to try and support your attitude.

Conformity Bias

Conformity bias is the tendency to act like surrounding peers regardless of own opinion[5]. There are different types of conformity bias - one being peer pressure. The actions of a person are based on the surrounding peers’ encouragement or discouragement and what the person believes the peers wishes to see as to fit in. Even though peer pressure is often perceived as a negative thing it can also lead to positive results.

Another conformity bias is the bandwagon effect, where a person will agree to something even though they are not sure it is correct. Either because they believe the majority know something they missed, or they do not want to start an argument[10]. It is a want for cooperation and leans toward groupthink.

A more serious version of the bandwagon effect is the Abilene Paradox, where the need for conformity leads toward a decision that no one wants [10], which could have detrimental consequences for the project and the team dynamic.

Project Management & Facilitation

Some would say that project managers are naturally good facilitators, but it is up for debate if this is true. A subject that has an entire association and certification connected to it would suggest that good facilitation takes training and constant development. Definition wise the two are not the same. A project manager oversees the planning and execution of a project, while a facilitator is responsible for leading the work of a group [11]. It is two different processes the roles look at; however, both are experts in their respective processes and therefore share a common ground. The project manager will also often find themselves in the role of the facilitator[12]. This can be said to both be a good and bad thing. If the two share a common ground then the project manager will be able to do the role of the facilitator, but potentially without formal training.


Mitigating Bias as a Project Manager and Facilitator

A tool to combat unconscious bias is facilitation as mentioned in PMBOK Facilitation as defined in PMBOK is the ability to effectively guide a group event to a successful decision, solution, or conclusion. A facilitator must ensure all contributions are considered and that any situations that happen because of the group event are dealt with - good or bad. A facilitator should strive to ensure that the best team combination possible is composed for the group event and that no unconscious bias has stood in the way of actions being taken during the group event. This group event is for example a project, that should be led to a successful hand-in to a customer or client.

Facilitation is a structured way to help people reach a common understanding and solve problems[12] - beyond conformity bias. A great part of being a good project manager is therefore also being a good facilitator for your team. Facilitation is a set of skills that requires you to be able to appreciate the current situation and what people are involved. The facilitator should not be presenting knowledge or give advice. The focus should be on guiding discussion in the team towards the defined objectives. It should be goal oriented but also flexible to branch out if needed [9].

The Core Competencies of Facilitation

The IAF core competencies for facilitation
Facilitator Competency Evidence of the Competency
A. Create collaborative client relationships Develop working partnerships
Design and customize applications to meet client needs
Manage multi-session events effectively
B. Plan appropriate group processes Select clear methods and processes that:
  • Foster open participation with respect for client culture, norms and participant diversity
  • Engage the participation of those with varied learning / thinking styles
  • Achieve a high quality product / outcome that meets the client needs
Prepare time and space to support group process
C. Create and sustain a participatory environment Demonstrate effective participatory and interpersonal communication skills
Honour and recognize diversity, ensuring inclusiveness
Manage group conflict
Evoke group creativity
D. Guide group to appropriate and useful outcomes Guide the group with clear methods and processes
Facilitate group self-awareness about its task
Guide the group to consensus and desired outcomes
E. Build and maintain professional knowledge Maintain a base of knowledge
Know a range of facilitation methods
Maintain professional standing
F. Model positive professional attitude Practice self-assessment and self-awareness
Act with integrity
Trust group potential and model neutrality

The International Association of Facilitators (IAF) has presented six core competencies which can be seen in the table. This is a shortened version of the original list, which can be found on their website[13].

Situations of where facilitation is especially important is when there is a challenging group dynamic or some rivalry in the team. The challenging group dynamic is not necessarily due to disagreement in the group but can be because of bias among the group members. As can be seen in the picture in point B-F specifically, a facilitator will have to be open to the fact that there is probably some sort of bias in their team one way or another and work with it. Point A is mainly client based and has been left out.

Plan Appropriate Group Processes

In point B the focus is on the group processes which are of course very important to a project manager and facilitator. There is an important focus on making sure that all participants are with what is happening regardless of how they work and think. Especially the Dunning-Kruger Effect, conservatism, and conformity bias plays in here. The goal is to achieve a high-quality outcome and it these three biases could be a hindrance at this point. If people think too highly of themselves and what they can, try and hide that they do not understand everything, or they disagree it could have a great impact on the result. Preparing time and support factors for the team and its processes will aid in a better team dynamic and communication amongst the team members. This includes a simple thing such as deciding where the meeting is held and trying to be effective with the time, but it also includes creating the appropriate atmosphere needed for the team meeting to run smoothly – whatever that atmosphere is. [14].

A lot of the work of facilitation lies in the preparation phase. Specific tools to use are tools like the design star, staging and scripting [15].

Staging is deciding how the meeting should take place. For example, if there is a specific table formation that is an advantage for this specific meeting or setting [15]. Scripting is when you create a script before the meeting to have an agenda to refer to and stick to as to not let the meeting go off the path too much. There still must be room for adjustments depending on the groups needs[15]. The script can be visible to the meeting attendees and can help them keep on track with the agenda.

The design star can help the facilitator/project manager in finding the objectives of the meeting and see how it is best approached by analysing purpose, participants, environment, form, and the roles. Together with the HBDI Whole Brain Model it can help prepare the facilitator on what scenarios they can encounter in the upcoming meetings[15]. AnThe Whole Brain Model can also help the facilitator check in and make sure there are no aversions or biases in the team that needs to be addressed by making sure to appeal to the four parts: rational, experimental, practical, and relational[15].

The Design Star as seen in [15]
Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment

In point C the facilitator can make several moves to combat building bias in the team, since it concerns sustaining a good team environment. Active listening is a part of this step amongst other things. Active listening also helps combat bias as it requires the listener to keep their mind open and positively engage in the conversation. This point also requires effective verbal communication which combined with active listening will lead to a more open and positive environment. Active listening and opening for the communication will help members identify what assumptions they have and recognize if there is any conflict that needs attention.

An open and positive team environment will give the team members a chance to provide feedback to each other, which will also help combat biases such as Dunning-Kruger and better self-awareness. The best way to combat wrong self-assessment is to ask the people around you how they see it. Facilitation should manage disruptive behaviour in the team and create a safe environment for discussion and resolution of conflict. The diversity a team often has should be a benefit and be utilised instead of it being a hindrance for the team working well together. 55% of meetings are dominated by one or two people and 32% of people fear getting fired for telling the truth [12]. This should not be a problem in an open and positive team environment.

Point C is very heavily team based for a facilitator and how point 3 is handled will influence how well the team dynamic will be. It is however not only up to the facilitator alone to ensure a good team environment. They should guide in the right direction, but if the team is not ready and open to creating an openminded space the work could be obstructed. It is also important to ensure that the team is on the same page regarding the project. This can be done in the initiating phase with a project charter as described in 4.1 under Project Integration Management in the PMBOK guide [3]. This could potentially also help create an affinity bias in the team members towards each other since people will know that they all have the same goal. This is also applicable regarding 4.4 in the PMBOK guide about managing project knowledge.

David Maister's Trust Equation as seen in [15]

To help build up the team and create a good atmosphere David Maister’s trust equation can be used. It is important that the team trust the project manager and the equation can also help the project manager combat bias in the team. Ways to create trust are avoiding assumptions, by asking questions and using examples, looking for shared interests, and making sure to be an active listener with very little self-orientation[15]. The meeting is not about the project manager/facilitator. By trying to rid of assumptions you also create a more open space for the team members, with little left to the imagination. Looking for shared interests is using affinity bias in your own favour, which can be very useful in trying to create a connection.

Guide Team to Appropriate and Useful Outcomes

Point 4 suggest that the project manager as the facilitator should be a guide for the project team. It surrounds the sensitivity and agility of the project manager – how good is the project manager at adjusting as needed during the project and meet new wishes from the client while still keeping the team satisfied even though some objectives may have changed. They should be the help the team needs to continue their work as best as possible when potential bumps show themselves[14]. The change can both be an objective one from the client but also change in the team dynamics and evolvement in the team. A script is also useful here. If the team knows what the meetings look like, they will have more focus on what the objective of the meeting is. [15]

Build and Maintain Professional Knowledge

Point E is mainly based around the facilitator’s abilities. The facilitator should understand the dynamics of change and understand how different actions and decisions affects the teamwork going forward[13]. The facilitator should continuously gain awareness of new information and reflect on the learnings[13]. These reflections and learnings could lead to changes in the team dynamic and how the team works best. The facilitator must not become stagnant in there was and should always educate themselves on if there are new and more appropriate methods for what they are working on. These ideas can come from other project managers or even team members.[14]

This is applicable in directing and managing the project work as described in 4.3 in the PMBOK guide.[3]

Model a Positive and Professional Attitude

Point F surrounds the focus that is that the project manager as a facilitator will be the role model for the team and what is acceptable behaviour. They set the tone and this point requires self-awareness from the project manager. They should remain neutral and use facilitating methods to solve potential problems. Showing the team members respect and listening actively will for example set the precedence and will give the team members a feeling of what is expected of them[14] .


Since cognitive bias is a systemic error in thought processes[6] it already shows that the brain is only able to handle so much information. It is a thing that creeps its way into your brain and influences how a person’s attitude and actions are in the world. Since 80-90% of the brain works unconsciously[2], it shows that even though a person tries to try to avoid bias and counteract it in their behaviour it is difficult to be completely rid of. Especially since it is easier to see bias in other people than one self[6]. The biases can be deep rooted and to the person in question be very well hidden – especially if it is a mild case of bias.

Attempting to counter bias in a team setting requires an openness from the entire team, that some people may not be onboard with. They may fear exposing their flaws or deeply believe that they are not affected by it. It requires a high level of self-awareness. Even if the team is educated on bias and become aware of some that affect them, they can choose to hide them for self-serving purposes or they may be so heavily affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect that they truly do not realise the biases present.

The Dunning-Kruger effect and overoptimism bias can hinder the level of self-awareness needed for an open environment. As the best way to combat the biases is to ask other people for an evaluation it can also very heavily depend on how willing those people are of speaking their mind of a person’s performance. They may fear the reaction from that person and what an honest answer could possibly do to a relationship. At the same time, if a person asks to be evaluated but then do not actively listen to what is said, it will end up just being wasted time with possibly added strain to the atmosphere. The person asking for pointers will have to listen and critically think about their own performance and behaviour and people tend to believe that bad things are happening to them and not because of them. It will require people to not be self-serving but put the team dynamics over their own agenda.

Annotated Bibliography

  1. The IAF Core Competencies list - This list lays down the ground rules for what a good facilitator should be able to do according to the IAF. It is very to the point and not very in-depth and would require you to read more articles about the subject to understand the different points. It is however a good reference pointer for what material to search for and which areas to investigate further.
  2. The Project Meeting Facilitator - This articles touches on the IAF core rules and how good facilitation works. It also briefly touches on the being both a project manager and facilitator at the same time. It presents the IAF core competencies and methods to use as a facilitator. Some methods that have not been mentioned in this article as to limit scope of the wiki page.
  3. The Facilitative Project Manager - This article describes the difference between the two roles of project manager and facilitator and how to rethink them into a facilitative project manager. It also relates it to the PMBOK guide and standard for project management. It is quite short but gives a good comparison of the two.
  4. Facilitation - This article mentions several specific tools and gives a very good overview of how project managers and facilitators are alike as well as how you can approach facilitation as a project manager. It presents the different stages of facilitation and what to be aware of when trying to become a good facilitator. It has also been used as a source for this wiki, but has several other good points not mentioned here.

Further Reading

Further reading can be found in:

  • The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation: Best Practices from the Leading Organization in Facilitation by Sandy Schuman
  • The Art of Facilitation - The Essentials for Leading Great Meetings and Creating Group Synergy by Stephen Thorpe, Hamish Brown, Dale Hunter & Anne Bailey
  • Facilitating to Lead! - Leadership Strategies for a Networked World by Ingrid Bens
  • Faclitation by Line Larsen, Henrik Horn Andersen & Cecilie Van Loon found at


  1. 1.0 1.1 socialtalent, Siofra Pratt, 9 Types of Unconscious Bias and the Shocking Ways They Affect Your Recruiting Efforts, 2016. Retrieved February 10th 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Forbes, Eric Mosley, How To Identify And Mitigate Unconscious Bias In The Workplace, 2019. Retrieved February 10th 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 The PMBOK Guide, 2017.
  4. Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Knight, 7 Practical Ways to Reduce Bias in Your Hiring Process, June 12 2017. Retrieved February 10th 2021.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 builtin, Bailey Reiners, 12 unconscious examples and how to avoid them in the workplace. February 18 2021. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 verywellmind, Kendra Cherry, What Is Cognitive Bias?, July 19 2020. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  7. verywellmind, Kendra Cherry, The Dunning-Kruger Effect, June 14 2019. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Forbes, Bryce Walker, Three Psychological Roadblocks That Get In The Way Of Good Management, November 9 2018. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 The HR Source, The HR Source, 5 Types of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, June 11 2018. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2, Rich Butkevic, The 8 Cognitive Biases Project Managers Need to Watch For, November 1 2018. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  11. Medium, Kris Blimling, Facilitator & Project Manager — What’s The Difference?, October 10 2016, Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Project Management Institute, Tammy Adams and Jan Means, The project meeting facilitator, 2006. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 The IAF website, IAF, Core Facilitator Competencies, Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Project Management Institute, Gary Rush, The facilitative project manager, October 19 2008. Retrieved February 21th 2021.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 15.8 Implement Consulting, Line Larsen, Henrik Horn Andersen & Cecilie Van Loon, Facilitation, September 2018. Retrieved February 27th 2021.
Personal tools