Elevating Leadership Series: Leadership & Bias

I want to start this post by asking you to name your top three biases. No no no, don’t pretend you don’t have any. We all do. We’re hardwired with biases. Biases are based on mental schemas that our minds construct to categorize the thousands, if not millions, of data inputs we receive so that we can make sense of our everyday environment. Categorizing, thus, is helpful, but often isn’t precise or accurate. To quickly illustrate the imprecision and inaccuracy, I’ll point to something I know: aviation. In aviation, imprecision and inaccuracy in the avionics or route-planning are biases and often lead to poor judgment on the part of a pilot. Our biases are metaphorically imprecision and inaccuracy in our internal, cognitive instrumentation. With all that said, what are three of your biases? 

The reason I want you to say your top biases is because I want you to acknowledge that the biases existprecision-bias and that they impact our social interactions. And since leadership is a social interaction, biases must influence leadership. So, take a good, hard look in the mirror and say them. Be honest. Like, really honest. Like playing-soccer-with-a-bowling-ball honestGo ahead, I’ll wait.

I did it. Now what?

Now, we’ve raised our awareness to them, so we’re ready to challenge them. To challenge them, we have to ask questions about them and then find answers. Biases are usually rooted in perception, but can often be rooted in experience. So we have to challenge our perceptions and our experiences. Did we have the proper perspective? Did we look at it from multiple points of view? Did we react without considering the situation? Did we allow our emotions to dictate our actions?  

Let’s, for a moment, consider a case in which a leader (and the gender of the leader doesn’t matter in this example) is biased against women in the workplace: Why is the leader biased? Did the leader have an unfortunate experience with a former female leader, colleague, or employee? Did the leader have an experience with women in his or her childhood that has distorted the perception of the aptitude of women? Has the leader been enculturated to be biased by social norms and stigmas?

From these questions, we can start a double-loop line of questioning in which we ask questions about the questions: Why does a poor experience with a female leader, colleague, or employee paint all women in a poor light? Why should women-professionals be held in low esteem because a leader had childhood experiences that were perhaps less-than-stellar? Are women’s aptitude explained and encapsulated truly by social norms and stigmas? And, therefore, can the leader’s perception, and the judgments thereof, be considered universal?

I’ll leave the answers in our example up to you. But, I want to point out how the questions, regardless of your personal feelings, start to make the rationale of our example leader’s bias fall apart – as is the case with most biases.

So, does bias have a place in leadership?

Certainly not – not consciously anyway. Well, unless your bias is for action or caring about people – then, I would say that your bias is safe. But, we’re not actually discussing those kind of biases. We’re referring to the not-so-good ones. As leaders, we must be vigilant in noticing biases and be proactive in removing their influence. We must be humble – there’s that term again – so that we can remember that we are not omniscient and, therefore, we often judge unjustly.

I mean, not everyone is perfect. I can tell a terrible employee when I see one.

Can you? Okay. I’ve met a ton of leaders in life, but I’ve never met a telepathic one. And, I don’t know everything, but I’ll go out on a limb and say there are no telepaths in leadership today. A telepath would be able to glean information about an employee, undistorted by perception. Since we’re not telepaths, we have to gather factual information the old fashion way. So, when we assess our employees, the assessment should come from information, not bias. Make no mistake, there is a difference between being informed and being biased. Just the same, there’s a difference between an informed leader assessing an employee and a biased leader judging one.

All that said, I will challenge you to assess employees or potential employees based on information, not on bias. You’d want the same treatment if the roles were reversed.

In the end, I recommend that we take some time and lay out our biases. When we’ve done so, we can ask the hard questions about the biases, and then ask questions about the questions. You know, see what we come up with. More importantly, we mustn’t allow our biases to influence us to prejudge. 

That’s it! Have a good one!

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