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What is a bias for action (and how do you build it)?

yellow haired man demonstrating bias for action

Many times throughout your career, or even your life, you might find yourself in analysis paralysis asking the question, “Should I do something about this?” 

If you’re Amazon, the answer is mostly likely always, “yes.” 

Amazon lists “bias for action” as one of its 14 leadership principles, and as many know, the company prides itself on rapid innovation thanks to employee habits and a culture of moving fast. 

Naturally, “bias for action” has become the new buzzword among entrepreneurs and business leaders as a skill they’d like to see in employees in hopes of gaining similar success. However, a bias for action only works if leaders and employees put in the prep work to mitigate risk and pivot quickly while taking steps forward.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of why the skill is desirable and how to develop it in a sustainable way, let’s first dive into some statistics that show the importance of this trait and what action-taking teams can do. 

  • Compared with their more passive counterparts, proactive people are better performers, contributors, and innovators. [1]
  • Personal initiative is important in the beginning of the creative process and for idea creativity. [2]
  • The average company loses more than 25% of its productive power to organizational drag—processes that waste time and prevent people from getting things done. [3]
  • Organizational drag due to excess bureaucracy costs the U.S. economy more than $3 trillion each year in lost output. [4] 
  • The most successful entrepreneurs have up to a 43% higher motivation to turn their ideas into action and focus on money than the rest of the working population. [9]
  • 16% of top leaders were rated very effective at either strategy or execution. Only 8% were very effective at both while 63% were rated neutral or worse on at least one skill. [5]
  • While increased choice allows us to achieve objectively better results, it also leads to greater anxiety, indecision, paralysis, and dissatisfaction. [6]
  • When we agonize over a decision, we deplete our limited supply of willpower much more quickly, causing us to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. [6]
  • Workers report spending 51% of their work day receiving and managing information, rather than actually using information to do their jobs. [7]
  • Studies find that an ability to make decisions quickly and to act upon them is one of the key determining factors differentiating successful people and companies from the unsuccessful. [8] 
Table of contents

What does “bias for action” mean?

Let’s start with a simple bias for action meaning or definition. Here’s the gist: You embrace change and are willing to take risks. If someone or a team works with a bias for action, they don’t spend too much of their time over-analyzing or over-thinking decisions. They don’t wait for a plan to be drawn up or permission to pursue their goals—they just act. 

It’s important not to confuse a bias for action with being impulsive, since impulsive decisions are often not supported by data and are more “shot in the dark” hunches. People with a bias for action take calculated risks with the data and information available and sometimes fail fast to find the best solutions as soon as possible.

How Amazon describes a bias for action

Amazon states on its own careers page: “Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.” 

How others describe a bias for action

Without Amazon’s spin on the concept, a bias for action could also be described as taking initiative or being a self-starter, action-taker, or changemaker. Those are more common skills that managers and leaders look for in employees and might list on a job description because it’s universally agreed that these qualities help create an innovative and successful business

Basically, think of a bias for action as a tendency to get things done without overanalyzing. Curious what it looks like in reality? Next, let’s cover some bias for action examples. 

Bias for action examples in the workplace

  • People are clear and quick to communicate a problem and directly ask leaders for a decision, instead of dancing around the issue.
  • Meetings are called with the purpose to update and assign to-do items for participants, instead of just sharing information.
  • People walk away from meetings knowing what next steps are needed and what their role is.
  • Managers foster a high degree of psychological safety, encourage their employees to take risks, and don’t become frustrated when those risks don’t work out.
  • Leaders manage with a more hands-off approach to avoid micromanaging and killing employees’ desire to take risks.
  • Employees are encouraged to ask for help and ask questions to find answers as quickly as possible.
  • Leaders create a timeline of goals for their team to achieve based on the company’s larger objectives.
  • Employees who present new data or findings to leadership call out key actions that should be taken based on the research.
  • People are willing to jump in and help on a project, even if it doesn’t fall under their job description.
  • Projects are never considered done or perfect. Teams are constantly implementing new improvements to create a better solution.

How to develop a bias for action in yourself

There’s a difference between planning to do great work and actually doing it, and that’s really the crux of a bias for action.

But, how can you strengthen this quality within yourself? Here are a few steps you can take to flex this muscle. 

1. Take small steps

You can’t wake up one day and decide to take action on every single decision in the next 24 hours. Instead, choose to take action on small items that have low risk. 

For example, if there are small decisions you would normally ask a friend or coworker for their advice on—such as whether you should join a club at work—give yourself the permission to just do it. 

Additionally, if there is a greater decision or action you need to take, work your way up to it by completing smaller tasks that get you closer to the finish line. Small decisions upfront can help make the final decision easier. 

2. Become comfortable with risk

Taking action means that sometimes you don’t have all the answers and have to take a risk. That’s not a bad thing, as long as your decision is based on some supporting evidence. 

Trust yourself enough to take what you’ve learned, consult your intuition, and act upon it. If you always wait to have all of the information before acting and second-guess yourself, a lot of time and energy can be spent. Prioritize gathering the most important information to form a decision, act, and then continue to learn more as you see the results of your choice play out. 

3. Avoid distractions

We live in a distracted world, which can make every decision feel overwhelming. To get things done efficiently, stay focused on the task at hand and avoid going on social media or engaging in other procrastination tactics that only draw out the process. 

Additionally, resist distracting opinions or consuming excess information if it’s not entirely relevant to help you take action or make a decision. 

4. Learn by doing 

Of course, there are going to be times when you act and subsequently fail. This is normal. However, it’s important to learn from your mistakes to pivot, adjust your approach, and try again. 

Assess what didn’t work and attempt to solve or tackle the issue in a new way. You’ll learn more by trying and failing again and again than contemplating all possible options. This will also build up your resilience as a leader and give you the experience to share with others.

How to develop a bias for action in your team

Highly effective leaders recognize the importance of not only fostering a bias for action in themselves but in their entire teams.

It’s smart to take the above steps to strengthen this quality within yourself, and then take a few additional steps to help your team boost their confidence, trust their guts, and take steps forward.

1. Simplify the decision-making process

When companies ask for pages and pages of documentation for a team to propose a new idea, it can curb the speed and the desire to take action. Allow your employees a reasonable amount of freedom to try new things, without a ton of hoops to jump through. 

Too much oversight and justification can hinder a work culture’s bias for action, so cut unnecessary steps in the approval process so new ideas can be tried quickly.  

2. Trust your team

Employees want to know they can take risks without disappointing management. Of course, risks should be mitigated and employees should make decisions based on supporting evidence, but too much fear will leave teams constantly waiting for their leader’s approval. 

By empowering your employees to take action without oversight into the small details, more solutions can be implemented at a faster pace. Plus, employees are more likely to pitch out-of-the-box ideas when they feel they have the trust and respect of their leaders. 

3. Set deadlines

Clear, achievable deadlines can embolden your team toward action and prevent procrastination. A set date creates more of a sense of urgency instead of an ambiguous deadline of “sometime this month.” 

When expectations are clear, employees can plan out which steps to take to complete the project in time. If deadlines are consistently not met, discuss with your team the reason behind those shortcomings to see whether the timeline was too ambitious or if the team ran into any roadblocks or bottlenecks.

4. Break up your larger goal into milestones

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure your team has what they need to be successful. If there’s a larger goal that you want your team to achieve, identify key milestones that your team will need to hit in order to reach the overarching objective. 

With this road map, your team won’t feel too overwhelmed or stuck on how they can meet the main goal. Instead, they can focus their efforts on creating an action plan and check off the deliverables needed to reach each milestone—which will bring them right across the finish line.

5. Don’t strive for perfection 

No project or solution will ever be perfect, and it’s a disservice to your team to expect perfection. Encourage your team to strive for the best solution that fits the circumstances. 

Ideas, products, and processes can always be refined and improved, but waiting to release something until it’s “just right” can take too long and is usually unattainable. By developing a culture of continuous improvement, your team will accept they can’t deliver perfect results, and provide something that’s “good enough” to start and can be refined as time goes on. 

Remember, a bias for action isn’t about impulsivity

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: a bias for action does not mean acting impulsively

Taking risks without any consideration of consequences isn’t a smart move in your personal life, for your company, or for your team. When making any decision, evaluate the information you have available, decide if it’s enough to start taking action, and then either find what information is necessary or take the first step in the direction of change. 

Additionally, developing a bias for action in your team can speed up innovation and the working process. However, it doesn’t mean that all timelines can be pushed up or condensed to do more work in half the time. 

Set reasonable timelines and discuss with your team if expectations feel attainable. This ensures that employees don’t stress themselves out and experience burnout as a result of a rapid and unsustainable pace of work. 

Ready to develop a bias for action?

Changing your own habits or your team’s culture isn’t done overnight. Luckily, F4S has tons of resources and coaching programs that can help you build a roadmap to take more action in your life. 

We have a rapid coaching program called “Start Fast!” designed to help you quickly develop a bias for action. It can be done 100% online with our A.I. coach, and only takes around 20-minutes a week.

You can also take our motivation assessment to see if you rank high for the F4S trait “Initiation”. The best time to do this would be before starting your coaching program, so you can see how your initiation increases by the end of the program.

Our evidence-based assessment will help you understand what motivates you and the rest of your team at work, what potential blinds spots you may have, or other talents you possess. These results will assist you as you develop a bias for action by helping you understand and tap into your motivators to encourage you toward action.

But ultimately, the best way to start developing a bias for action is to simply start taking action. You can start with the decision to invest in yourself and use F4S resources to assess where you’re at now and what you want to work toward. 

The next time you find yourself choosing whether to take action, reflect on this quote from author and futurist Joel Arthur Barker: “Vision without action is just a dream, action without vision just passes the time, and vision with action can change the world.” 

Action is necessary to make any change, whether it be in the workplace or in your own life. Don’t be afraid to take charge and get started on your goals and ideas. Trust your gut, start small, give yourself some grace, and then get to it. If not now, when? 

Stop being afraid and start taking action. Get started with our "Start Fast" coaching program today.

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