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Don’t Let Your Instinctual Bias Sink Your Business

The three instinctual biases–Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting–that shape our focus of attention and reaction to basic biological needs also shape the kinds of organizations we create and how we act in them. In fact, most large organizations (without realizing it) are organized to meet these needs in a structured and efficient way, demonstrating that there is a direct correlation between the biases and business functions.

This is useful to know for anyone running a business, or part of a business, of any size.

IB and Business FunctionsHumans have biases to pay attention and value some things and not others. Preservers, for example, value safety, security, and structure but tend not to value self-promotion and extroversion. This applies to their personal lives, but also what they will value in an organization they lead. It has been my experience over and over again that even highly effective Preservers will overemphasize those aspects of the job related to things that Preservers tend to value and underemphasize the aspects they don’t.

This is simply human nature, but it can have a negative effect on one’s personal performance as a leader and on the organization as a whole.

While large organizations are usually structured in a functional way to counter these individual biases, our biases can still have an impact because they influence the attention of the leader and they can shape the culture of the organization. This means that a particular leader may focus more on the organizational functions that are related to their dominance bias and either let performance slip in other functions or fail to recognize the contributions of those working in those functions.

Further, a corporate culture can develop that is heavily focused on one instinctual domain, leading to weaknesses in the other domains. The result being, for example, that a Preserving culture is good at execution but lags on business development and sales; a Navigating culture has good internal and external relationships but struggles with execution and delivery; or a Transmitting culture rapidly gains market share but is riven by an internal lack of communication and strategic alignment.

In order to overcome the effect of these biases we need to understand them, recognize their impact on the organization, and take steps to account for them.

You can read about the three instinctual biases in depth here, but broadly:

  • Preserving is focused on “nesting and nurturing” and on ensuring that fundamental survival needs are met for things like food, water, clothing, shelter, and overall safety from harm.
  • Navigating is focused on “orienting to the group” and on building alliances, creating trust and reciprocity, and understanding how oneself and others fit into the group.
  • Transmitting is focused on “attracting and bonding” and on passing genes, beliefs, values, interests, and worldview to others in order to make them carriers of that information.

Business functions related to the Preserving domain include:

  • Finance–ensuring that money is accounted for, spent wisely, and distributed appropriately.
  • Operations–making sure that products are produced and distributed efficiently, safely, and with requisite quality.
  • Plant maintenance–the general upkeep and optimization of facilities.
  • Security–providing a safe and secure workplace.

Business functions related to the Navigating domain include:

  • Human resources–ensuring fairness, developing and distributing workplace policies and rules, talent management, etc. (Benefits and compensation fit more with the Preserving domain.)
  • Corporate communications–managing and shaping the company’s reputation inside and outside the organization.
  • Marketing–understanding the market’s needs and planning product strategy accordingly.

Business functions related to the Transmitting Domain include:

  • Sales–convincing customers to buy the company’s offerings.
  • Advertising and branding–positioning the company’s offerings in the most appealing and attractive light.
  • Business development–hunting opportunities and cultivating relationships with potential customers or strategic partners.

An important note: This is not to say that everyone in a particular function will have the dominant instinctual bias I have linked to that function. Not all finance professionals will be Preservers and not all sales people will be Transmitters, for example. But I have found that people disproportionately migrate to careers in a function that matches their dominant bias and it seems, anecdotally at least, that there are more Preservers than either Transmitters or Navigators in finance. It also seems, again anecdotally, that people tend to avoid functional roles that correlate to their tertiary instinctual domain. However, it bears repeating–I have seen effective and successful people of each instinctual bias in every corporate function.

As I said, the performance of even large organizations can be affected by the instinctual bias of the leader (if the leader fails to appropriately value and pay attention to all the business functions) or due to a culture that values one of the biases disproportionately. However, the impact is even more severe in small- to mid-sized businesses, where the biases of the leader tend to dominate the culture and corporate business functions are not as deeply embedded as they are in large companies.

Entrepreneurs, start-ups, and solo practitioners really need to pay attention to how the biases shape performance. It is almost universally true that Preservers in these situations will struggle because they don’t promote themselves enough; Navigators will struggle because they lack disciplined execution; and Transmitters will struggle because they miss the nuanced messages and political dynamics among the people around them.

Successful people and successful companies are successful because they have learned to be sufficiently skillful in all the relevant aspects of their business. We fail at the weak points–it does no good to have a pristine and impenetrable bow of the ship if there is a gaping hole in the stern.

There are some simple questions you can ask to ensure that your instinctual bias is not undermining your success or the success of the company for which you work. These questions matter whether you are self-employed, run a small business, lead a team in a larger organization, or are CEO of a multinational organization.

  • What is your instinctual bias and how does it cause you to pay attention to certain parts of the business and undervalue or ignore others parts of the business?
  • What is the value of the parts of the business that you are ignoring?
  • How will getting better at them help you be more successful?
  • To what extent can I outsource these activities to people who are more-skilled at them? (“Outsourcing” does not mean “abdicating;” you are still responsible for activities you have outsourced, so do it wisely and track outcomes.)  
  • What mechanisms can you put into place to ensure you sufficiently attend to those parts of the business you tend to ignore? How will you hold yourself accountable?

The big challenge with the instinctual biases is that they are instinctual (i.e., non-conscious) and they are biases, but we see them as objectively true. We tend to fool ourselves into thinking that the areas outside our dominant instinctual domain are unimportant, so ignore them.

To do so is akin to ignoring the water gushing through the hole in the stern while you keep admiring the bow–eventually you will sink.