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4 Steps to Removing Leadership Bias | AboutLeaders.com
Article by Mark Graybill
January 23, 2013
8 Comments
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pick meNot much time passes before I am once again humbled by an author’s viewpoint in yet another article on leadership bias originating somewhere on the globe. Many such articles exist right here on AboutLeaders.com. I am reminded on such an occasion how much there is to learn about leadership.

Leadership is about our ability to connect, influence and obtain a followership to an end purpose.

Leadership Bias

The main theme involved in why there is so much to learn about leadership is how little we really know about ourselves. So much behind how we think, perceive and behave is elusive at best and could be one reason why we are so driven to find and express that rhetorical recipe that nails it.

We are often hard-pressed to understand, let alone know, what to do with what starts out as a “feeling” about someone. This is not the “I have feelings” sort of thing, but rather an internal experience we are aware of before we know what it is. We then try to determine its meaning, decide what to do with it, and that often means we “spin” something up.

This means we can be wrong and being wrong can adversely affect leadership effectiveness.

My point here is we can feel a certain way toward someone that should be redirected to our internal trash bin. Discerning this is an important leadership objective.

To grow as leaders we need to constantly improve ourselves and that requires improving our understanding of self. We need to understand when to act on gut feelings and when not to. If we already know why we respond to such feelings I would suggest pragmatically testing them for bias.

Pick Me, Pick Me!

Many of us have childhood experiences where we stood in a line up hoping one of the team captains would pick us for their team (perhaps thinking who made them captain anyway?)  Were any of you ever picked last or near last? Do you know why? Sure, it might have been you weren’t very good at whatever sport you were about to play, but it could also have to do with who the captains liked and didn’t like. You were probably good enough or as good as some they picked but never got the chance to show it because you were not preferred.

As a part of my studies, which I also extended extracurricular wherever I was assigned at the time, I would interview managers about various topics, including this one.  On the topic of being selected for a project or position or promotion, one of the common things I’ve found had to do with how well hiring managers liked you. It was important to achieving being liked so one’s focus was said to involve such achievement. This begs the question:

Can being liked or doing the best job be at odds with each other, and if so, which is in the best interest of the organization?

like me

Human Tendency

It would seem much hasn’t changed since childhood. Or, more likely, it is due to fundamental human tendency that doesn’t automatically disappear in adulthood. The evidence across disciplines supports the latter. Once a leader understands they have personal preferences and biases hindering their performance (and do not want them), the remaining question is how to find and overcome such bias.

As a review, bias is the tendency to be influenced in our decisions by a particular perspective we hold. It is inappropriate in leadership when bias exists at the expense of the goals and objectives of the organization, team or project.

As leaders, discovering and deactivating our inappropriate biases is in our best interest and in the best interest of our organization.

On the flip side, I have also seen leaders be biased positively toward people in protected groups as a way to demonstrate they do not have bias. From a human resource perspective, personnel decisions should not have anything to do with personal traits unrelated to job requirements. Sometimes policy is involved to ensure a diverse mix of people and I am not opposed to that, but for a leader to do so without such policy guidance is inappropriate.

Minimizing Inappropriate Bias

Leaders who have preferences for one person over another should challenge themselves to ask why.

To aid in this process I have included an exercise I have personally used to remove bias. But before I get into the exercise, it is important to suggest blocking time on your calendar for conducting personal introspection activities such as the following exercise.

Before you begin the exercise it is important for you to believe you could have biases and that you are committed to removing them. Without such a disposition the exercise will not work and will be yet another activity trap with little or inappropriate purpose. Identify those on your team you tend to generally prefer over another.

Step 1: Identification

Pick two people: one you would prefer and one you would not prefer.  This is not to identify Member A who has skills Member B does not have, preferring Member A over Member B when such skills are needed. Unless the skills themselves are elusive and hard to describe (and probably just post-hoc rationale), what I am referring to are preferences not explicitly tied to job requirements. It is important to pick two people that you can contrast with regards to preferring one over the other.

introspection

Step 2: Introspection

List reasons for why you prefer or not prefer each individual and answer the following questions for each reason.  You may need to dig deep or get detailed, such as the way they talk or walk.

  • Do I have evidence for this reason and if so what exactly is it?
  • Given the evidence, should this reason warrant why I prefer or do not prefer this individual?
  • Is this reason appropriate for impacting decisions or is it purely personal?
  • Then play Devil’s advocate and flip the preference polarity by listing why you should prefer the one you generally wouldn’t, and not prefer the one you generally would. Answer the above three questions for each new reason. The purpose is to expose rationale on a more level playing field and causes you to engage counter argument.

Step 3: Take Action

If you have identified someone you may not be giving opportunity to that perhaps you should, then you have something you need to do to change it. A couple of suggestions are as follows:

  • Change how you regard and interact with them. Ensure you get to know this individual more during your one-on-one meetings with them, and pay close attention to how you feel about them and interact with them. In team settings, once again pay close attention being mindful of the fact others will pick up on how you regard and interact with them, and may follow your example.
  • Decide to ignore the inappropriate reasons why you do not prefer them and just decide to prefer them – take a chance. All the other aspects of leadership apply such as expecting success and letting them attain it by empowering them to do so.
  • In assignments try to be balanced as much as possible even though you may not feel comfortable assigning someone you would not prefer to. Again, this isn’t ignoring the fact someone might not have specific and tangible skills required by the assignment.

Step 4: Return to Step 1

unbiasedContinue Steps 1 through 3 for each member of your team you have contrasting preferences for. As you do so it is hoped to shed light on bias you may have that you should not have and provide opportunity to remove such bias.

Effective leaders do not use personal preferences in their judgments about people they are responsible for.

The value of a human resource should be predicated on their ability to perform individually and on a team, toward achieving organizational goals.

Leadership Skills TakeawayA leader’s job is to maximize team productivity and do so in a healthy way for everyone.  Thus, it is crucial for leaders to be always on the lookout for personal deficits such as bias that can get in the way.

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Mark Graybill

Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.

  • Ramdeo Choudhary

    The bias can never be realised through empirical means without developing ones consciousness. We in India have a whole lot of inputs to enable one todevelop consciousness ro the highest extent and objectivity is the by product of the process. Leaders have to undergo the process of inner refinement or transformation to rise above personal preferences.

  • Thanks Ramdeo for your comments. You are absolutely correct. Increasing conscious awareness and the ability to remain at high levels of consciousness most of the time is essential to self-mastery and effective leadership. Such a thing takes practice.

    Different cultures over the millennia have wonderful techniques for achieving this. A good friend of mine who grew up in Singapore talks about a practice of achieving higher levels of consciousness and enlightenment a program called Avatar.

    What I offered was a glimpse of self-introspection attenuated to bias that stems from our primitive, preconscious selves – the antithesis to enlightened consciousness. Instead of coming from Avatar or other ancient programs, which offer wisdoms of the ages, I’m simply coming from findings in neuroscience.

    Self-introspection causes our executive brains to override primitive regions (i.e. limbic system) by tipping dopamine levels from the limbic system to our executive brain, which is commonly referred to as the brain’s command and control center.

  • This is a fantastic post Mark, thank you so much. I completely agree with your perspective and will do my best to share this article on the social web in hopes many managers see it.

    One observation I would make is that just as supervisors and managers may fall victim to their biases, so do workers. As you know, workforce incivility is a huge issue between co-workers today and as I read your post I can’t help but think that ANYONE can benefit from the 4 step exercise you have outlined.

    Thanks so much for all the value you add to this community, it is truly a privilege to learn from your work and experience!

    Al

  • Thanks Al for your kind words. I agree with you completely – workers – anyone can benefit from removing bias. I know I still have a lot of work to do.

    I feel privileged to learn from you – all the excellent articles too numerous to mention.

    To get a little mushy, if I would guess one common vision we may all share here, it might be to change the world through intelligent and positive leadership. I might suggest further that we see our leadership also involving passion, understanding, and compassion, as well as continually rising to the challenge through personal growth, self-discipline and self-mastery.

    And thus ever more toward the ultimate goal to take chaos and produce order to achieve the highest victory – all under the view our human resources are utterly wasted because we leaders aren’t getting it done.

    How well did I do? Comments?

    Cheers!
    Mark

  • Mark, I am sorry I never saw this comment, I completely agree! I would love to have you join me on my new web radio show and podcast called Leading Beyond the Status Quo. Please let me know if you would be interested.

  • Ramdeo choudhary

    The topic assumes significance because of the turbulence we face in our action, decision,and determination. It may be due to our limbic system but needs to be studied in depth.The sure way to find objectivity, clarity and purpose in our decision making process is by calming us down, slowing us down, introspection through meditative practices not only to survive as an effective leader but also to enjoy life’s bliss and blissful moments. The process cleanses the accumulated dross of bias and makes us feel objective, selfless while taking important decisions in our life. It happens automatically as if commanded by some higher forces taking full control of our psyche. To the westerners it has always remained a myth because they want to explore it with logic and rational argumentative mind. This topic is beyond the realm of logic and rationality. It has immense power to move mountains and therefore I always suggest every aspiring leader to include meditation of few minutes in his daily life as a routine.

  • Pingback: Leadership Fundamentals: There are 3 of You | aboutleaders.com ()

  • Mark. Very good article and much appreciative of your effort to identify bias in leadership as it relates to “employees”. One of the problems that leaders also must tackle is simply trying to identify and remove bias, in particular as it relates to “action” they must take. Good leaders already know they have biases and are always on the look out for them. I recommend that they enlist others to help them identify those biases. Thanks. Keep posting articles on bias and leadership.
    Doug
    http://www.theleadermaker.com

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