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.

Related:  Overcoming Resistance to Corporate Culture Changes

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.

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