December 17, 2021
Catherine Daly

5 Ways to Overcome Leadership Bias

7 minutes
Unconscious or implicit biases often run counter to our conscious, expressed beliefs. And whether we want to accept it or not, we all have biases—even the best leaders among us. Every time we engage with other people, our unconscious brain filters and categorizes hundreds or even thousands of micro messages we pick up from and about them.
Think about the last time you selected a candidate for an interview because they went to the same school or played the same sports as you.

Now, think about when you reacted to a name on a resume that was ethnically different from your own or when you estimated a person’s age by the year they completed school or university.

Also, consider how you reacted the last time you interviewed someone who fit your idea of an attractive person. Then consider how you felt when you interviewed a candidate whose appearance or presentation didn’t match your expectations. Perhaps they were short, tall, obese, in a wheelchair, or had a speech impediment. 

It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? 

As humans, we are programmed to respond positively to people we perceive to be like us and react negatively (consciously or unconsciously) to people we perceive as too different to “fit in” to our social or professional groups. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that most human decisions are not based on facts or logic. Instead, they are based on biases, beliefs, and intuition.

For leaders, it is critical to become aware of these biases—and challenge them constantly.

What is Leadership Bias?

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Leadership bias is a form of unconscious bias that causes leaders to categorize, compare, and make assumptions that reinforce their own—often unintentional—favoritisms, preconceptions, and prejudices, as well as common stereotypes.

Leadership bias creates judgment errors that affect leaders’ decisions and feedback.

Common Types of Leadership Bias

In a recent post about how leaders can better deliver feedback, we covered some common types of leadership bias including:
1.

Recency or “what have you done for me lately?” bias

This is the tendency for leaders to focus on the most recent time period instead of the total time period being evaluated. It is common in the workplace as busy leaders tend to gauge performance based on the most recent experience with an employee—especially on larger teams where people are working autonomously. Recency bias leads to the common workplace adage, “you’re only as good as your last X.”

2.

Similar-to-me bias

Similar-to-me bias often leads managers to rate people with similar interests, skills, and backgrounds more highly than people who are different from them. Similar-to-me bias is more common than you’d imagine and can negatively affect everything from workplace inclusivity to diversity hiring initiatives.

3.

Proximity bias

Proximity bias occurs when leaders give preferential treatment to those who are physically closest to them—this is especially common in hybrid workplaces where some employees are office-based and others are remote. Remote employees often feel as though they are “out of sight, out of mind” as they’re overlooked for projects and promotions over their in-office peers.

4.

Gender bias

Gender bias has gained a lot of attention in the past few years—and it’s still an issue. In one study, 76 percent of critical feedback given to women included comments on her personality (e.g., a woman was “abrasive”) while only 2 percent of negative reviews for men included similar comments. Gender biases severely affect growth and promotion opportunities, and perpetuate the gender pay gap.
5.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. This is a common leadership bias which makes it easier for leaders to trust people and information that aligns with their values and beliefs and harder to trust those that don’t.
This list is not exhaustive by any means. There are many ways to identify leadership bias. For example, leaders who obsess about “the way things were,” or get distracted by the latest “shiny object,” or worse—won’t let go of a strategy that clearly isn’t working, are often driven by bias instead of facts and evidence.
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Worse than any of these individual biases is leadership bias’s effect on the wider organization. Research shows that leaders can reinforce harmful organizational biases that were in place, even before the leader came on board. These biases—when left unchecked—are built into supervisory relationships and groups due to the intrinsic nature of workplace hierarchies.

5 Ways to Overcome Leadership Bias

Leaders can use various strategies to minimize the effects of individual and institutional biases in the workplace.
1

Acknowledge the bias

According to a leadership strategy expert, the first step toward rooting out leadership bias is to make leaders aware of their blind spots. Encourage them to reflect on whether they are drawn to candidates or employees because they meet the company’s criteria for success—or because they share certain similarities with them or simply “like them.”
By reflecting on these things and acknowledging bias in the moment, leaders can be intentional—and less reactive—in their decision-making.
2

Unconscious bias and self-awareness training

Top leadership consultant Michael Brainard emphasizes the three desired key outcomes of tackling leadership bias: humility, discomfort, and discipline. Anti-bias training can help force leaders to get out of their comfort zone and create self-awareness.
Real development occurs when people get uncomfortable. By making anti-bias training mandatory for leaders, organizations can adjust cultural norms from the top down to accommodate a more diverse workplace.
3

Structure employee feedback

Unstructured feedback is a breeding ground for bias. Without structured criteria, you will inevitably reshape the criteria for success in your own image. Stanford researchers recommend leaders focus specifically on situations, behaviors, and impacts—not on personalities. The whole idea of feedback is to guide someone to change something. It’s almost impossible to change personality.

Also, it is wise to get a second opinion—no single individual (including you as a leader) should have a disproportionate influence over an employee’s performance as a whole. To eliminate individual bias, seek input from multiple sources. Confidential, measured—but not gossipy—input from other managers and peers can help significantly reduce bias in performance feedback.

For more tips on delivering unbiased feedback to employees, check out Unbiased Feedback: Why it Matters.

4

Stick to the facts—and look at the data

The most honest, unbiased feedback is often the toughest to hear, but that’s exactly why it must be heard. Data can help leaders back up or debunk hearsay or biased feedback.
Diving into cold, hard data can also reveal an unconscious bias problem in an organization. For example, if you have high employee or leadership churn rates in your membership among people of color, you probably have an institutional racism issue that needs to be investigated and corrected.

5

Get more collective intelligence

Unconscious leadership bias stems from a variety of shortcuts our individual brains take to make life easier. And although bias is almost impossible to eliminate, it is easy to interrupt through collective intelligence.
At ThoughtExchange, we refer to this paradigm shift as going from loud leadership to crowd leadership. This means making the shift from empowering one leader with a voice, direction, and strong decision-making skills, to empowering leaders that can activate crowds of people, tap into their collective intelligence, and build stronger organizations.

Key Takeaways About Leadership Bias

While the human brain is built for bias, leaders don’t have to give in to it. Leaders who acknowledge their own biases can constantly check themselves, look at data, gain second opinions, and use collective intelligence to counter bias and make better decisions.

ThoughtExchange gives leaders a quick, simple way to do this. They can gauge views from across their organization anonymously and using patented anti-bias technology. So rather than basing their decisions and strategies on the ideas of a few at the top, leaders can use ThoughtExchange to generate data points from across the organization, then soundboard the resulting strategy to make sure it’s effective.

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This approach not only helps cull bias at leadership levels, it ensures the entire organization has bought-in to decisions and encourages greater leadership alignment.

If you’re interested in learning how to unlock the power of collective intelligence in your organization to disrupt leadership bias and create more inclusive work environments for everyone, get in touch with us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Catherine Daly
Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Catherine is a professional writer based in Vancouver, B.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism (for passion), a master’s degree in marketing (to pay the bills), and has over 15 years of experience working with big tech brands like Adobe, Hootsuite, HP, Oracle, PayPal, and ThoughtExchange.

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