Biases We Don’t Know We Have That Make Our Jobs Harder

Tendencies we don’t necessarily know we have are hurting our abilities to innovate, hire the best people, see our work through the lens of a newcomer, and diversify. This is true for orchestras and a lot of other types of organizations as well.

Most people don’t want bias. Most of us prefer to be informed, aware, and better equipped to maximize our organization’s impact, improve profitability, and better serve our constituents.

This post is about the biases that are inadvertently making those things (i.e. our jobs as arts administrators) harder. And while it’s good that more and more people are intolerant of bad, biased behavior, it’s even better that research shows a lot of times, becoming aware is pretty much all it takes to stop the unproductive tendencies and then move forward with a more constructive predisposition.

To know the biases is to overcome them, or at very least it’s the first step, and below is a list of biases holding us and our organizations back.

“To know the biases is to overcome them.’”

Biases Hurting What New Patrons Experience

If you’ve ever thought it was a little challenging to see the experience of a newcomer visiting your organization through their eyes, there are psychological reasons why.

  • Hindsight bias. Also referred to as Curse of Knowledge, hindsight bias is the phenomenon that after we learn something, we tend to forget what’s it’s like to not know that thing. As arts administrators, our brains really struggle to remember when we didn’t know what a concerto was, or when we weren’t sure what to wear to a performance, or when we didn’t know composer names and musical periods like the back of our hand. It’s a curse for us for sure since more and more of our patrons are single ticket holders who are definitely less familiar with our art form than we are.
  • Availability heuristic. I’ve written about the availability heuristic before, as it led to launching the Orchestra X project, and it’s how we as humans use information we already know to be true to influence future decisions. Generally this is a good thing, as it’s how we as a species are able to take mental shortcuts in order to make thousands of decisions every day. But when it comes to classical music, as mentioned above, there is a lot we administrators know that others don’t. This in turn leads to a lot of decisions being made that are not serving the broader market and instead serving only the small percentage of people who share that foundational knowledge.
  • False consensus effect. Humans tend to overestimate how much other people see things the way we do, prefer the things we prefer, and have similar habits to what we have. How many times have you been in a meeting and referenced your own personal experience as a barometer for other patrons (who doesn’t know where the venue is located?!), or written in the appeal letter about why the donation is good for the organization rather than good for the donor (ticket sales only cover X% of the costs), or thought that most people visiting our website are the most loyal patrons (let’s make sure we’re not dumbing it down). All of us do this: consistently falsely believe in a wide consensus with our own viewpoint and experience when there isn’t one.

“As arts administrators, our brains really struggle to remember when we didn’t know what a concerto was, or when we weren’t sure what to wear to a performance, or when we didn’t know composer names and musical periods like the back of our hand.”

Biases Hurting Hiring

So many organizations, not just arts orgs and not just nonprofits, hire ineffectively. And so many leaders in our field and outside of it give bad advice on this. From hiring for “passion” to looking for “culture fit,” the following biases are making not only equality and diversity more difficult for our organizations to achieve (more on that later), they are often leading us to make downright suboptimal hiring decisions. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a position to spare to not get right. I need the best people for every job, period, because I can’t afford to hire someone good when there could be someone great. These biases are almost always unintentional, and to me, some of the most mind-blowing of this whole post.

  • Fundamental attribution error. Have you heard of the Heidi vs. Howard study? Columbia Business School Professor Frank Flynn gave participants identical resumes to review, with one exception: half the group had Heidi’s name at the top and half the group had Howard’s. Heidi and Howard were rated equally competent — which they should have been since their resumes were identical — but Heidi was evaluated as “too assertive,” “not likable,” “self-involved,” and overall rated not as good of a fit for the job. The fundamental attribution error is when we infer that someone’s actions or behavior are due to who they are (assuming an assertive personality drove Heidi’s successes, for example) rather than external factors (attributing the success to their good education or something else not personality-driven, which was how Howard was viewed). This disparity in how we evaluate people is a really big deal because it causes us to overlook qualified candidates due to thinking there might be a personality issue. Further research shows that the more a person/candidate is not like us (i.e. not just different gender, but also different ethnicity or sexual orientation or religion or something else dissimilar about one’s background), the more we have a tendency to inaccurately attribute the type of person they are, which leads us to inadvertently and incorrectly evaluating their candidacy.
  • Prove-it-again bias. People of underrepresented groups have to prove their ability over and over again compared to their white male counterparts. Studies show that when being considered for job opportunities, this results in white males being evaluated on their potential whereas underrepresented groups are more often evaluated on their experience; in other words, “have they demonstrated ability again and again?” (experience) not “are they capable to do the job ahead?” (potential). This tendency results in inconsistent candidate evaluation at best and erroneous evaluation at worst, and it causes us to miss out on stellar people as a result.

Additionally, all this applies not just to hiring our administrative staffs, but for the artists we engage as well. Anytime you are in the room and hear a comment like, “she hasn’t written that many compositions for full orchestra” (prove-it-again bias) or “that [Latinx] soloist is so fiery and angry” (fundamental attribution error), think twice.

“This disparity in how we evaluate people is a really big deal because it causes us to overlook qualified candidates.”

Biases Hurting Innovation

Whether we’re trying to be more creative with programming, or looking for new revenue streams, or just trying to entertain new ideas to broaden the appeal of our art form, these next few biases make it extra difficult to innovate.

  • Law of small numbers. We tend to listen to anecdotes over data. When one important subscriber or donor calls with a complaint, we make reactionary policies or plans that aren’t really serving the audience as a whole. Or when that one video online got a lot of “good patron feedback” we think we should make more like it instead of looking at how many seconds were viewed on average or the clickthrough rate it received. It’s like seeing that someone flipped a coin and the first two times it landed on heads, so we think the third flip is probably going to be tails when the reality is that a sample size of two flips is way too small to think the probably of a third flip is anything other than 50/50. Look at the data to inform future ideas, not the anecdotes of a few. Always.
  • Confirmation bias. People favor information that supports already-held beliefs. This makes a lot of sense because understandably, no one likes the cognitive dissonance that results when our beliefs are called into question. The trouble is that this tendency not to challenge our own assumptions makes thinking outside the box very difficult.
  • Planning fallacy. Call us all eternal optimists, because for whatever reason, people by and large think things won’t take as long as they do. This is one reason why so many of our strategic plans are totally aspirational or way too ambitious for what actually can be achieved in the 3–5 years of the plan, or perhaps why we continue to overwork ourselves and our staff, or why capital campaign timelines and objectives can go sideways. Hopefully in some ways it’s a breath of fresh air to hear that a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist (Daniel Kahneman) identified this bias and gives us all permission and advice to slow our roll.
  • Actor-observer bias. Whereas a bias in inconsistently evaluating others is the fundamental attribution error described above, when evaluating ourselves, the false assessment is called actor-observer bias. For example, when we make our sales goals, we usually say the victory is attributed to internal factors (Our smart and savvy advertising got the job done!), but when a concert underperforms, we say it’s because of external factors (The bad weather that day really kept people at home!) rather than taking a moment to think that maybe something in the marketing plan didn’t work this time and then assessing what that might be. I know it’s an ego blow when things don’t go well, but failure to get past that is keeping us locked into the insanity cycle of doing the same things over and over again and hoping for different results, which is the opposite of innovation.

“I know it’s an ego blow when things don’t go well, but failure to get past that is keeping us locked into the insanity cycle of doing the same things over and over again and hoping for different results, which is the opposite of innovation.”

Biases Hurting Diversity

The final category in this post, just like most people don’t want bias, most arts leaders don’t want to be racist, at least in my experience. Yet I’ve been at the table where someone says, “If we commit to performing works by underrepresented composers, I don’t want the quality to go down…” as if all underrepresented composers write lesser quality works when we all know that there are plenty of bad works by white people too. Or like the time at a board meeting when we were talking about welcoming Spanish speaking audiences into the hall, and one person commented that they weren’t sure if that group had donor potential. (Because all Latinx people are poor? Um, have you seen how many white people make small donations or don’t support at all?). If these people and comments are all well-meaning, why is this happening?

  • Anchoring. When unchecked, the first piece of information you learn on a given subject most strongly informs how you feel regardless of subsequent learning. We all learn statistics early in life that low-income families are more often of color than white. We all see that the major composition accolades throughout time are frequently awarded to white males. These facts are anchoring our views going forward whether we know it or not, and it is precisely why cycles of privilege and prejudice are so hard to break: we are taught, a lot of times unintentionally, to make these sorts of inordinate conclusions.
  • Base rate fallacy. This is when we ignore general (or base) information and focus instead on specific information, not unlike the law of small numbers above. For example, we saw the 10-person line at the food bank was mostly Latinx (specific) and think that segment of the community does not have the means to become donors, when in fact tens of thousands in the local population are Hispanic and follow a somewhat normal wealth distribution curve (general).
  • Salience bias. Otherwise known as “in-group bias” and even “herd mentality,” it all means that people making decisions tend to consider information that is more salient or present or obvious than not. On one hand this makes a lot of sense: of course we consider obvious information when making decisions. On the other hand, that’s why a mostly male executive or artistic team is going to gravitate toward hiring or programming more males; it’s not that anyone is sitting there lambasting underrepresented candidates or composers or guest artists, it’s that because those choices are less obvious (i.e. not a part of the standard, historical canon, nor in the room), they are simply not top of mind.

What To Do About It

Remember, science says that just by reading this far you are more aware of these human tendencies and therefore more likely behave differently. Awesome. (So share this with everyone you know, ok?) And if you want to be a little more intentional about it, here are a few additional tips that will help you be that much more woke, armed, and equipped going forward:

  • Have strong opinions, weakly held. Nobody wants a wuss for a leader. Which is why all of us, in all roles and positions should absolutely form our opinions and be ready to advocate for them. However, this framework of “strong opinions, weakly held,” first developed by Stanford Professor Paul Saffro states that it’s our willingness to doubt those opinions, those ideas, and those forecasts that ultimately brings us to better results in the end. By not holding on too tightly to our intuitions, and by allowing space for new information, new people, and new data to enter the equation, we’re combatting the default and challenging our assumptions. It’s essentially slapping bias in the face. Jeff Bezos says it this way, “Disagree and commit.” It’s ok — good even — to have healthy disagreement and avoid the false consensus or herd mentality traps; and sometimes we can disagree to the end and still choose to commit to support a person or idea to help it triumph. He readily admits that some of Amazon’s most successful projects and shows were greenlit not because he was convinced of the idea, but because he decided to fully support it nonetheless. Whether you keep your two cents weakly held or decide to toe the line and support other viewpoints, the end game is the same: a lot more viable outcomes for our organizations.
  • Tokenism doesn’t help. For anyone reading this thinking that because they have a few women or minorities on their leadership team that they are making progress, take note: women in particular speak 75% less when they are outnumbered in the room (Source: Brigham Young and Princeton). To make matters worse, studies show that speaking up comes with a penalty when it does happen. Women tend to be viewed as less likable when they voice opinions, and all underrepresented groups are more likely to be interrupted when they do speak up. There’s hope though, as there are two instances where this double bind doesn’t hold. One is when the tables are turned — when women outnumber or are equal to the men in the room — as described by University of Texas researcher Ethan Burris. Two is when people from the dominant group invite participation from people of non-dominant groups, meaning when anyone white asks someone of color their opinion, others listen better, or when a man interjects and stops that other guy from mansplaining that term in a meeting, others follow suit.
  • Women are sometimes the worst offenders. Yep. Biases aren’t just men biased against women, or WASPy men biased against every other type of person. Often when women have biases, it’s against *other women.* This happens more when tokenism prevails, leaving room for only one woman at the table/in a leadership role/on the board/etc. The women who make it had to fight to break through the glass for those coveted spots, whether consciously or unconsciously, and then tend to continue to fight as if there aren’t enough leadership roles to go around. Even in the we-think-we’re-so-progressive orchestra business and even though today there are increasing numbers of women in leadership positions on stage and off, women do not always support other women. It’s to our collective benefit to acknowledge there’s no need for that queen bee stuff anymore. Women, give public praise to other women. Raise each other up. Be the one to stop the person interrupting your colleague in a meeting and politely ask her to finish her thought. Recommend each other for jobs when recruiters reach out. We must support each other — men supporting women, women supporting women, and all of us supporting underrepresented people, whether that’s due to ethnicity or sexual orientation or religious views, or any other thing that makes someone different than the majority.

“By not holding on too tightly to our intuitions, and by allowing space for new information, new people, and new data to enter the equation, we’re combatting the default and challenging our assumptions. It’s essentially slapping bias in the face.”

One more time, at the end of the day, most people don’t want bias, not even the most old-school executives or the stodgiest board members. And all of us definitely don’t want our jobs to be made harder as a result of proclivities we didn’t even know we had. I’m still working on these things, and I hope you’ll join me. May this post help us all become a little more aware and a little more informed, which in turn makes our work a little easier and our organizations and art a lot better.

About the Author

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when many arts organizations are finding it more and more difficult to meet rising ticket, subscription, and fundraising goals, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple the donor base.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of execution and impact at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry.



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Aubrey Bergauer

Aubrey Bergauer

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.