Woman In Headscarf Smiling

Acknowledge you're biased

Bringing our biases to the surface as leaders

Written by Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Woman In Headscarf Smiling

We can all get very anxious when the word “biased” is used. It smacks of unfair, discriminatory behaviour that should be avoided  at  all  costs. 

Like  many  behaviours,  eliminating  bias is easier said than done.

The first step could come from more self-awareness, where we admit to the inevitable position that we are in fact biased.

It is almost impossible to imagine anyone not being biased in some way. Our experiences, upbringing, parental influence, mentors, family members, friends and work colleagues have all shaped our opinions, attitudes and beliefs to a point where we subconsciously react differently to people or circumstances that are different.

It is even likely this propensity for bias is in our DNA – a survival instinct from when the arrival of an unusual tribe from over the nearby hill was appropriately seen as a threat. Therefore caution was an important impulse and making micro-second decisions helped us.

However, even if we are hard-wired to be biased, or may have  acquired  biases  through  our  development,  it  does  not mean we have no control over the way in which they manifest themselves in our daily lives.

Awareness of our capacity for bias allows us a decision point or moment of reflection, to choose how we respond in any given situation.

For example, on meeting someone from a conspicuously different cultural background, we may sense ourselves withdrawing from the conversation and being more cautious with the amount we disclose.

This subtle awareness enables a choice – do I continue to withdraw or do I reach out to the other person, listen more intently and make small selective self-disclosures to demonstrate my interest in forming a more positive relationship with the other person?

Sometimes this self-awareness doesn’t surface until long after the conversation – once you’ve have had time to reflect on which aspects of your interaction with the other person went well and which went poorly, and why.

It may not be possible to eliminate all your biases, but it is possible you can mitigate the most severe negative implications by responding when awareness of your bias bubbles to the surface.

Ultimately, you may be able to anticipate situations in advance to avoid any inappropriate behaviours before they occur.

One more small step in the next 24 hours

Take a moment to reflect on situations when you have dealt with one or more people who are conspicuously different from you.

They could be a different age, from a different ethnic background, a  different socio-economic  status  or  any  other  characteristic that has the potential to contain bias.

Make some notes on how your behaviour changes when interacting with these people in comparison to situations when you interact with people more closely aligned to your own characteristics.

If you have difficulty seeing your own changed behaviour, ask a trusted friend or colleague to observe your behaviour and to share what they see and hear you do.

Now consider how you could behave differently next time? How could you build on your similarities rather than your differences? How could you gain more insight into their experience and therefore be more open to their perspectives?

Ask yourself

What impact could this action have on your leadership success? 

How likely is it you could implement this action successfully?