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What was the most biased decision made by a leader that had a negative impact on you?

How did you feel?  Angry, disappointed, rejected, ignored, invisible, unimportant? Add your own words.

Let’s go back in time and analyze the decision. Do you think the decision was consciously made to belittle, denigrate, or offend you? Or, do you think the decision was made out of ignorance, unconscious beliefs, or lack of understanding its impact? My experience has often been the latter. That is unconscious or implicit bias.

Unconscious bias refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Workplace examples may be:

  • Hiring or promoting based on “fit” rather than objective performance criteria.
  • Leadership decisions based on marital or family status. She can’t travel because of young children. They are single therefore can work the holiday hours.
  • Ignoring a presenter and asking question of a “known expert” in the room.

We have all seen these and similar events happen. Go back to the personal event you chose at the beginning. What would have made the leader realize their impact? Some typical answers I get are:

  • She needed to listen to what we were telling her.
  • He needed to ask more questions about the impact on us.
  • The leader needs to build an understanding and perspective of those affected by the decision.

What would be the impact if leaders considered their decisions may be affected by unconscious bias? My opinion: it would make an immeasurable positive impact.

Let’s take a short detour and talk about bias in general. Here are two question I believe need to be answered: Are all unconscious biases negative? How are they formed?

Are all biases negative? No, many biases keep us moving briskly through our day. Biases exist as a shortcut for us to make decisions. We cannot handle all the information coming at us on daily basis. To cope, our brains develop shortcuts, biases to help make decisions. We have unconscious biases on food we like, routes we travel, and all kinds of other preferences. Biases become a problem, when they result in decisions that are prejudicial and negatively impact individuals.

Where do biases come from? Biases develop in us based on our mental makeup and exposure. For instance, how were you raised? Did you live in a city, suburb, or a rural setting? What type of school did you attend; public, private, religious, or home. How about your family setting; adopted, married parents, single parent, siblings, close to extended family? All those factors developed biases within you.

Self-awareness is the number one factor that determines your leadership effectiveness. How aware are you of your biases? Can you definitely state you are aware of a specific bias and the actions you take to hold it in check?

An example may be: When interviewing for a position I have to be careful when the candidate is a veteran. Being a veteran, I always make a connection and give a lot of credit for their service. I need to ensure they are fully qualified for the position. This is an unconscious bias I have made myself aware of and proactively address.

Another may be that a leader does not give the deference and credit to a new or younger subordinate. The leader defers to and asks questions of a senior team members even when the expert is the junior member.

What biases do you have that are creating a negative impact? Take a moment and revisit a recent decision and assess it for bias. What does your assessment tell you?

Two considerations: 1) develop your self-awareness and 2) consider the perspective of those affected by your decisions.

Improving your self-awareness around biases will take time. It will require reflection, introspection, and personal research. One place to uncover your implicit biases is at the Implicit Project. This is a series of self-assessments to help you reveal your biases. I have found the results to be very interesting.

Next, take the time to ask, listen, and explore the perspectives of others. Understand the impact of your decisions.

When we make a decision as leaders we expect to make an impact with positive consequence. Considering our self-awareness and the perspective of others may ensure we make the impact and consequence we intend to.