What Is Self-Serving Bias? (With Tips to Manage It)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 7 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Self-serving (SS) bias can influence the way employees and managers think and act. It can impact the decisions they make and the way they interact with others. Managing this type of bias can help you make smarter business decisions and become a better employee or manager. In this article, we explain what self-serving bias is, provide examples of this bias, explain why it happens, note its impact and offer tips for managing it.

What is self-serving bias?

Self-serving bias is a type of cognitive bias that encourages people to accept personal credit for successes while attributing less desirable outcomes to external factors. This bias protects and increases a person's self-esteem by accepting praise for successes while suggesting negative outcomes are beyond their control. Everyone naturally has a SS bias, which they usually apply subconsciously. Understanding and acknowledging this bias can help people overcome it.

Related: Self-Worth in the Workplace

Workplace examples of SS bias

Here are some examples of SS bias in the professional world:

A new hire

A sales assistant with two years of experience applies for a job at a clothing boutique. They're likely to attribute personal factors, such as their charming personality or in-depth industry knowledge, if they secure the job. If the business chooses another candidate, they're likely to attribute external factors, such as the interview process or the personality of the hiring manager. They're less likely to acknowledge personal limitations, such as limited experience or running late for the interview.

Related: 3 Habits That Could Increase Your Chances of Getting the Job

A missed deadline

A manager asks an employee to write a press release to promote the company's new product by the close of business on Friday. The employee misses this deadline. When the manager asks the employee about the press release, they cite external factors such as colleagues needing assistance and a short turnaround for the missed deadline. An employee who has managed their SS bias may admit they needed to prioritise the press release and manage their time better to complete assignments by their deadline.

Related: Using the Pomodoro Technique to Master Time Management

A lost sale

A sales representative meets with a potential new client. The meeting ends with the lead deciding to sign with a competitor. The sales representative blames the competitor's underhanded business tactics. If they managed their SS bias, they may admit that they could have been better prepared for the meeting. With greater preparation, they could have presented arguments to overcome the barriers that prevented the lead from signing with the business.

Related: 15 Effective Techniques for Closing Sales to Meet Targets

A successful presentation

A marketing team successfully pitches a campaign for a major client. The team leader takes full responsibility for the positive outcome. They forget to credit external factors, such as the creativity of their team and the strong economic conditions, for success.

Related: How to Make a Presentation (With Detailed Steps and Tips)

A termination

The business decides to terminate an administrative assistant's employment. The administrative assistant decides budget cuts are behind the decision. They're less likely to consider how poor time management and frequent personal use of the internet have led to the termination.

Related: Understanding Termination Letters (Definition, Tips and Example)

Why SS bias occurs

Here are some reasons SS bias happens:

Personal beliefs

People tend to believe things happen for internal or external reasons. If you believe things happen for internal reasons, you believe you have a great degree of control over the way your life turns out. If you believe external factors have the greatest influence, you believe you have less control over the outcome of your destiny. People who think they have less control usually engage in SS explanations for negative outcomes more than people who believe they control their own destiny.

Motivational factors

When people feel motivated to improve themselves, they're more likely to celebrate the personal attributes that helped them succeed and attribute external factors to any setbacks. This habit helps people feel resilient and want to keep learning. A similar phenomenon happens when people want to improve the way others see them. Taking credit for their successes and crediting setbacks to external forces can improve someone's reputation.

Related: 9 Tips on How to Self-Motivate (With FAQs)

Demographics

One gender may be more likely to blame external forces for any setbacks than the other. Age can also influence SS bias, with people more likely to credit themselves for any successes during certain phases of their life. Social factors in a person's upbringing may also play a part. People in cultures that celebrate personal achievement may be more likely to show SS bias than people from cultures that believe luck plays a key role in their fate.

Impact of SS bias

SS bias can be a positive force that helps people feel more confident. The secure feeling that confidence brings helps people form positive relationships with others. When people are confident in their abilities, they're also more motivated and open to constructive criticism and ongoing learning.

SS bias has some drawbacks though, so it's important to manage this tendency. By encouraging people to look at external factors for negative outcomes, SS bias can impede personal reflection and growth. People who display SS bias may find taking personal responsibility for setbacks challenging. It can also impair relationships by encouraging people to blame others for their negative outcomes. People who've helped others succeed may also feel slighted if you overlook their contributions.

Related: 8 Examples of a Working Relationship (With Helpful Tips)

Tips for managing SS bias

People who manage SS bias can objectively assess situations and determine the internal and external factors that influenced them. Managing SS bias helps you reap the benefits of this natural habit while overcoming the negative effects. Here are some tips for managing SS bias:

Identify when SS bias impacts your thinking

Try to assess your reactions to successes and setbacks objectively. Considering if your reactions are an honest reflection of a situation or influenced by SS bias can help you understand events better. Simply acknowledging your SS bias can help you manage it better and encourage you to be more impartial.

Understand the impact of SS bias

When you understand the impact of SS bias, you're more likely to watch for this bias in yourself. You can then take steps to combat the negative impact of self-serving bias. For example, you might make an effort to acknowledge the help others give you to ensure your relationships stay strong.

Re-frame your thinking

If you start attributing external factors to negative outcomes, try to re-frame your thinking and consider the role you played. For example, if you felt you missed a deadline because your manager assigned you a lot of work, you might consider how you could manage your time better. You might also consider being more assertive when you receive a heavy workload, so your manager knows you may struggle to complete all your tasks on time. You can also try this approach when you succeed and consider the external factors that aided your progress.

Related: What Is Logical Thinking and Why Is It an Important Skill?

Give yourself constructive criticism

Constructive self-criticism can help you be a better employee. Look for steps that may have led to a more favourable outcome or skills you could improve. When you give yourself constructive criticism, you can recognise the role you played in the outcome and learn from the experience. When you focus on constructive self-criticism, you're less likely to give yourself destructive criticism that targets your personality. Constructive criticism also encourages you to keep moving forward rather than getting stuck in a negative mindset.

Related: How to Give (and Accept) Constructive Criticism

Accept yourself

When you accept yourself as you are, you become more resilient. You can acknowledge the way you contributed to setbacks and still maintain your self-confidence. Acknowledging that you're human, with flaws and the potential to make errors, can help you accept yourself.

Practise self-compassion

Being compassionate to yourself when you make mistakes can help you accept and move on from your errors. When you show yourself kindness, it's easier to face the way you may have contributed to a negative outcome. You understand that you can support yourself through uncomfortable emotions.

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