- On August 16, 2016
The news media gaffes on covering women Olympians got me thinking about the inadvertent bias that shows up in how we interpret what we experience.
In last week’s blog post I acknowledged my own flawed snap judgment in discounting what I might learn from a beautiful man with physical and mental challenges.
On our individual leadership journey, one of the most important skills to develop is to become an ‘observer of self.’ Our unconscious biases will inevitably show up; it’s how quickly we observe that this happening and choose what we are going to do about it that is the mark of true leadership.
In their book Blind Spot, authors Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, provide us deep insight into the hidden biases that exist in our brains. They say these start as “bits of knowledge about social groups” generated by frequent encounters in our cultural environments (24/7 news media cycles, perhaps?) and these bits get stuck in the deep memory places in our brains and now influence our behavior towards members of that group, though we are unaware of that ‘bias.’
Here is as example of how my own conscious bias has the potential to degrade my business effectiveness if I lacked awareness of it:
Having navigated a successful career in the male-dominated U.S. Army, I have a bias towards strong empowered women. If I interpret a slight against that ‘ideal,’ I find myself getting very focused on addressing that in ways that will level the playing field.
As a leadership coach, a bias like this—unrecognized and unmitigated– can be a huge disservice to my clients. I am here to help them recognize what is best for them, not steer them on a path of what I feel they need.
I know that issues around ‘empowerment’ are a trigger for me and I am aware that I must work to put my own feelings aside. I can’t get away from interpreting through this lens, however I am aware of it and can be transparent about it with my client so they can make their own sense of what is best for their situation. I remember that my ‘job’ is to hold the space and offer the process for them to make their own insights, separate from where my own bias might lead them.
In working with organizations to improve leadership effectiveness, we often recommend each leader take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) offered by Harvard University (free online). There are multiple tests available; I sampled the gender and race tests.
Given what I’ve already said about women’s empowerment, it was re-affirmed when I exhibited neutral bias in aligning women and men into equally career-oriented roles. However, I was hugely surprised by my outcomes on race. Despite a long career in a very diverse culture with a strong emphasis on equality; despite my own strongly held personal belief in the value of treating all people equally; despite my conscious engagement to not ‘jump to conclusions’ about someone–I still scored a slight unconscious bias against black people versus white people. Quite upsetting that my conscious and unconscious were seemingly at odds.
As a result of the IAT I am now aware that I have an unconscious bias. I began to more consciously consider the lens I am using in my assessment of experiences involving a person of darker color. This matters hugely to me—my relationships with clients, business partners, and friends are at stake. I can’t get rid of it but I can become more mindful that it is there and look for how it might be coloring my own behaviors. By mitigating the ways I may be acting through a hidden bias I try to live up to my own value of treating people equally and individually.
We’ll never get rid of our ‘blind spots,’ however being an effective leader requires that we become aware of them so we don’t make the inadvertent ‘unconscious judgments’ that dis-respects and de-values any person as an individual. It is yet another ‘self-observer’ insight that creates more empowered leadership.
Maybe the Olympic commentators need a little ‘time-out’ to examine their own blind spots before they dig themselves a deeper hole when it comes to valuing women athletes for their achievements without casting it through the lens of male influence.
Where might you have hidden bias in your life…and what do you intend to do about it?
Photo credit: vivat l Shutterstock319980569