Overcoming proximity bias

Get closer to people in different ways

One summer afternoon, I got a text message from my new next-door neighbor.

Can I borrow your lawnmower?

His broke and would take a few weeks for repairs.

His grass was getting tall and he wanted to cut it soon. He didn’t want to wait for his lawnmower to come back from the shop.

This neighbor borrowed other tools from me in the past. A pressure washer. A table saw. A wheelbarrow. A snow blower.

I told him he can borrow the lawnmower. No problem.

I put some gas in the lawnmower. I showed him the basic operations. And off he went.

My lawnmower is a hand-me-down. The week I moved into my house, some other neighbors a few doors down were moving out of state.

They no longer needed the lawnmower and asked if I wanted it. I said yes because I didn’t have one yet.

The lawnmower is a basic manual push mower. Duct tape holds some pieces together. It rattles if you move too fast.

But it works. And it worked fine for my neighbor. He mowed his yard and promptly returned the lawnmower.

Afterwards, I began thinking who I would lend the lawnmower to.

What if it was someone on a different street? What if I know them just as well? What if they have the same need? Would I lend it to them?

Probably not. But why?

The lawnmower is worth little. I got it for free. I have zero attachment to it.

It’s different than letting someone borrow a car. A car is more expensive, requires insurance and a license to use.

Why do I think I wouldn’t let someone on the next street borrow the lawnmower?

Because they’re further away from me.

Cognitive biases

An uncomfortable truth in life is confronting our biases.

Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts we take that lead to making poor decisions.

Our brain simplifies information by filtering our preferences and personal experiences.

We focus too much on certain kinds of information and overlook other information.

There are dozens of cognitive biases. We’re all biased, no matter where you’re from.

Proximity bias

The lawnmower story is a case of proximity bias.

We tend to prefer those who are physically closer to us.

We have a basic human need to connect with others. We often treat them better than others further away.

You may be thinking:

Of course you’d lend your lawnmower to your neighbor, instead of to someone farther away. It’s less effort for you.

That may be true.

But proximity bias also happens at work.

In the office

If you worked in an office the past few years, you were probably affected by remote and hybrid work.

This may sound familiar:

You worked in an office (pre-pandemic). Then, you worked remotely (during the pandemic). Now, you have the option to work in the office a few times a week (or more).

You notice that leaders (managers and executives) are all in the office. Everyone getting promoted works in the office. Most remote workers have poor performance reviews.

You feel you need to get “face time” with leadership to further your career.

Remote and hybrid teams are becoming more common. Yet, it seems challenging to show your impact when you’re working away from the office and your colleagues.

Maybe you should go into the office daily so everyone can see you working. Right?

Reverse proximity bias?

Years ago, I was helping redesign a leadership program for people managers.

As part of the curriculum, we brought in executives to share memorable leadership stories.

One executive, Chris, shared a story.

One Friday evening, Chris is sitting at his corner office desk. He steps out to use the restroom.

He’s surprised to see his entire team still at their desks.

He stops and says, “What are you all doing here? It’s 7:15 p.m. on a Friday!”

The team members looked at one another, confused. Someone finally speaks up, “Uhh, we were waiting for you to leave before we left.”

Chris says, “I’m only here because I missed my train home. I’m just killing time before my next train. I’m not even working. I’m playing a game on my phone!”

He realized his team was using proximity bias to show how committed they were to the job.

They believed Chris would look down on them if they left work before he did.

Proximity bias works both ways. We often think leaders use it to evaluate us. Yet, sometimes we use it to curry favor with our superiors.

Chris thought about how to set a better example. He now makes sure to say goodbye to each person on his way out.

How to overcome proximity bias

Minimize the impact of proximity bias at work in a few ways:

  • Recognition

  • Acknowledgment

  • Communication

  • Measurement

Recognize it

Like most cognitive biases, the most important thing is to know when proximity bias happens. We often don’t know until much later.

Chris found out by accident when he missed his train. I found out when thinking about neighbors on the next street.

The sooner you can recognize it, the better.

Acknowledge it

Increase your chances of finding proximity bias in your own decisions by talking about it.

At work, talk openly about it with your team. You may learn that some team members prefer in-person meetings over remote meetings. And that’s ok.

Be sure that remote workers are included in discussions.

It’s easier to spot the symptoms of proximity bias when you know where to look.

Communicate with everyone

Engage with your team in a digital way so everyone can participate.

Have a video call. Create a group chat. Host an audio conference call.

Give people an option to participate and communicate if they want to.

Objective performance management

Identify measurable goals. Divide them into smaller objectives that can be achieved in a few weeks.

Then, schedule time with your manager to review your goals and objectives. Do this every few weeks. You can use these to support your (or your team’s) merits.

This helps you challenge proximity bias in the minds of leaders and managers. It leads to fairer promotion decisions and rewards.

In sight, in mind

It’s natural to have proximity bias. But that doesn’t make it right or good.

With a few simple adjustments, you can avoid being out of sight and out of mind at work.

It’s as easy as cutting the grass.

Thanks for reading.

See you next week,