The Dilemma of Bias in Leadership

I’ve recently been conducting research related to bias in interviewing and hiring and in doing so uncovered some excellent and surprising information on how to build a greater awareness of ones bias in the hiring process.  This research has also unintentionally helped me develop a more acute awareness of the role of bias and its influence not only in hiring but also beyond.

On a personal level, it’s become clear to me -- in fact painfully so -- that though I thought myself to be an open-minded person, I in fact have deeper, more influential biases than I realized or frankly care to admit.

Bias in its basic definition is described in a negative light; but in its purest form does not have to be seen as such.   It can be equated in the same vein as discerning (a positive term) because in the end it’s all about that -- making a judgment based on certain criteria and we know the better the judgment the better the outcome.

When you look at the source of bias and how it is developed, here is where the dilemma surfaces.  Whatever bias or preferences you have in any situation has been shaped and cultivated from your collective life experience or life conditioning. That conditioning has shaped who you are, crafted your capabilities, molded your beliefs, tested your values all through the filter of your innate wiring -- which some call personality. It’s that conditioning that has made you the leader you are today and in that you could say your bias (part of your conditioning) on some level has served your success. And yet, that same collective experience -- where your bias resides can unknowingly work against you and those you lead.

One of the most popular areas of professional development for which I conduct seminars is creative and innovative thinking. It’s an area that the IBM Institute for Business Values proclaimed through a survey of 1,500 CEOs as one of the most important leadership competency. In fact Richard Florida in his book, Rise of the Creative Class states, “Ideas are the new commodity of the 21st century.”  Most of today’s leaders would agree!

And yet, giving attention to your ideas, deeming them credible as well as the ideas of others can easily be undermined by your very own bias.  Perhaps you’ve discounted an idea because of the person delivering it. Your bias towards their appearance, personality or even current work performance has you judging the value of the idea before it’s even been uttered accompanied by this thought, “Surely this person can’t come up with a credible idea.”

Or, because of past experience or past conditioning a potential solution pops into your mind and is quickly discounted with the phrase, “that probably won’t work.” (Mind you, it hasn’t been tested yet.)

The dilemma of bias is that the very benefits of bias aka discernment, which has supported and enhanced your leadership capabilities can also be the source of being close-minded, judgmental, discounting potential talent or value as fast as a Blink as referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s book. The result is you become the unconscious victim of your own success.  Yes, your success can limit your success and bias can play a role in that.

I believe an essential practice of a growing leader is nurturing a keen awareness of the role bias plays in how they lead and manage their own talent and the talent of others and ultimately the profitability of their company. Notice I said a “growing” leader.  To grow and be creative and innovative, you’ll need to be willing to stretch beyond your current preferences or biases.  

Let’s not sabotage the exciting possibilities that await all of us by not owning and managing as best we can the presence of bias.

Originally published on The Human Sphere blog





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