How Normalcy Bias Can Derail Your Leadership Development

Ever felt like you could handle anything and ignored a disaster until it was at your doorstep? Perhaps you heard about a big storm moving through but didn’t take any precautions until it was too late. Or you saw the deadline for a work project approaching but didn’t realize how serious it was until it was moments away. All of these are related to normalcy bias. 

We all deal with conscious and unconscious bias throughout our lives. These can come from things we’ve learned or subconsciously picked up from watching others. A lot of biases come from society, and things we didn’t know we noticed until later when they impact our behavior. 

Learning about your biases can help you be a better person and leader. The more you know about them, the easier they are to combat. And normalcy bias is something that can impact leaders significantly. To successfully lead your team, you must understand this bias and know how to handle it when it pops up. 

Normalcy Bias Defined

Normalcy bias has a few different names. It can be called normality bias, the ostrich effect, analysis paralysis, or denial. It relates to business in many ways and can impact your job or day-to-day life. Typically normalcy bias presents as a coming change or danger that you perceive but don’t act on because you believe it will go away or that things will eventually return to normal. It can lead to inaction when action is needed most and cause many companies to crumble in the face of change because they become unmovable. 

An urge to ignore a big problem or act like it’s nothing can seem like a normal response. No one likes to deal with possible failure or incoming disaster. But ignoring things almost always makes them worse. And a leader has to show the team how to react. No reaction is not the answer. 

These kinds of biases often go unnoticed until it’s too late. And the normalcy bias is based on seeing the warnings but not moving in time. Have you ever seen something dangerous about to happen, but you stepped in to stop it? That kind of behavior, moving as soon as you see the problem, is positive. A leader might feel pressure to make the right move, leading to no movement. This has been devastating to companies in the past. 

How Normalcy Bias Derails Development

Assuming things will go back to normal after a supposed shift or disruption can be dangerous. Things can change much faster than we realize and can change for good. These disruptions impact entire industries, and a company’s ability to move with them can make the difference between success and shutdown. Think about how quickly phones have advanced. Twenty years ago, we all used Nokia brick phones with no cameras. Now you can run an entire business off a phone and run it well. 

If you, as a leader, can face difficulties head-on and not try to pretend they aren’t happening, your company will be in a much better place. There are many examples of normalcy bias you can use as cautionary tales. They can help you recognize how damaging it can be and the different scales it operates on. 


Consider Blockbuster and Netflix. Blockbuster seemed to have cornered the movie rental industry. They had loyal customers and consistent clientele, with stores all over the country. Netflix, beginning as a mail-order movie rental idea, seemed way out of left field and was not perceived as a threat. The concept of streaming at home was laughed at, and Blockbuster turned down the buyout offer from Netflix in the early 2000s, only to watch their industry disappear into their respective homes to start streaming. If the corporate team at Blockbuster had seen Netflix as a real threat and shift in how people want to watch movies and shows, they might have taken the deal and been better off. 

Unprecedented Times

It can be easy to say that you can’t predict when something will change permanently. But sometimes, the change is continuous, and people still want to ignore it. Think about the very beginning of the pandemic when no one knew the best course of action. Many businesses resisted letting people work from home for a long time, assuming that a few weeks of the shutdown would do it. And, of course, it didn’t. The pandemic is still impacting people and businesses around the world. Companies that were able to adapt and move into a hybrid setup or go fully remote could help their employees and keep everyone safe while maintaining productivity and business operations. 

Not every industry can work remotely, but being flexible helped many businesses stay open. Those that assumed the pandemic would be over and things would very swiftly return to normal may have waited too long to take things seriously. And if you put off building a contingency plan when all the signs point to needing one, you’ll likely miss that opportunity. Now tons of businesses are working remotely and finding strategies to thrive under those conditions. 

Things won’t always go “back to normal,” even when we want them to. And being prepared to handle change and problems as they arise can help you be more successful as a leader.

How to Avoid Normalcy Bias

You might feel like normalcy bias is impossible to avoid. You don’t want to assume every situation is dangerous and avoid taking any risks. But you also need to recognize when something could cause long-term problems if you don’t act now. You can use some tips to counteract normalcy bias and avoid falling into it. 

How do you make decisions? Are you basing them on what you have learned and witnessed, or is it off of rumors and what people have told you? Being confident in your decisions is important, and so is interrogating how you make them. If you are encountering a possible problem, do your research. Learn about what is going on instead of using a one-off comment someone made. It can be easy to get carried away without realizing it. And if you stop to think about how you make your decisions and what they’re based on, you’ll be able to make more educated and confident decisions to benefit your company. 

A bias is built in to give you a shortcut. Your brain makes assumptions allowing you to move faster. But they often need to be corrected or require another look. You have to be willing to be wrong, especially as a leader. Your first instinct may be entirely off the mark, and if you can recognize that and correct it, you’ll be much better off. 

Cognitive Bias And Leadership

There are many different kinds of cognitive biases. The normalcy bias is just one in a long list of possible hindrances for leaders. You can be a more effective leader and person by learning more about what triggers a bias and how to counteract it. While a bias exists to help our brain take a shortcut, it can make us ignore pertinent information that doesn’t help in the long run. Take time to assess why you think certain things and how you make your decisions. 

A thoughtful leader who can look at multiple perspectives to solve a problem can help a team grow and progress. If you believe nothing will change, you will likely be left behind. 


Everyone has biases. They’re a part of being human. But they can impact more than we think, especially when leading others by example. Knowing some of the cognitive biases, you may be working under and a great way to begin combatting them. And if you know the pitfalls to avoid, you can help your team, and your business do better. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming trouble will disappear and that the status quo will always be upheld. When you see a problem, address it. Taking on challenges head-on and thinking through solutions will help you combat normalcy bias and prevent an issue from growing out of control. 
If you feel like exploring these topics helps you better prepare to lead others, you’re right. And there’s more out there. You can read up on leadership skills and learn from some of the best in the industry to build a style that works for you and helps your team thrive. If you want to build better leadership skills, being open to learning is a great place to begin. Check out this webinar to help you get started.