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A Leader’s Guide to Bias

A bias is a conscious or unconscious preference or shortcut for decision-making, that supersedes impartiality.

We all have biases. To have a bias is neither inherently good, nor bad. Some biases are good or useful, others are not so good and far less useful.

Most discussions of bias focus on the darker side of our conscious and unconscious decision making shortcuts. Since I’m not well-versed enough to teach unconscious bias, I will be taking a different approach to bias. However, I strongly encourage everyone to become fiercely curious about unconscious biases as a deeper understanding can help make us better, more well-rounded and inclusive humans.

If you are interested in learning more about unconscious bias, I strongly recommend the book The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How To Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams by Pamela Fuller, Mark Murphy, Anne Chow.

It’s also a good idea to search for and review lists of unconscious or cognitive biases.

Today, we’re going to look at bias from a different angle so you become a better leader and a better human…perhaps even a superhuman.

Positive and Negative Biases

My friend Tony Chatman, who is a phenomenal speaker and author, tells an amazing story about the utility that an unconscious bias can have. He recounts being in upstate New York, in rattlesnake country, and feeling something slither over his foot, while wearing sandals. Without making the conscious decision, he took off running long before he could assess whether he just experienced a garter snake or something more dangerous. That useful unconscious decision, might’ve saved his life or at least from a nasty bite. Thankfully, he’s around to tell the story. Seriously, it’s a masterclass in storytelling. I’ve heard it three times and still laugh out loud.

selective focus photo of rattlesnake

That is an example of a useful bias. Some biases are not as useful.

All of us, at some point, have been presented with a narrative about certain groups of people. We’ve either participated or been present while stereotypes are “jokingly” passed around. We’ve had past experiences or traumas that get planted in our brains and that show up as a reaction to certain situations or people. These biases can limit our own potential by reshaping our perception and causing us to prejudge others.

That is an example of a limiting bias.

Conscious & Unconscious Biases

One of the most important ideas I’ve learned about bias is that awareness of our biases give us the opportunity to make different choices. Gaining a mindful awareness of our various biases gives us a remarkable super power: The ability to interrupt the bias in its tracks and make conscious choices rather than quick judgments based on various inputs we may not have chosen.

Over time, this moves the bias into the conscious zone where we can choose to invalidate the intrusion and move forward.

What’s important to note is that not only can we do this through awareness of unconscious biases, but also through the process of deliberately and consciously installing valuable biases.

For example, because of my ADHD, I have a tendency to lose small details. Even if a task only takes a few moments, if I put it to the side, it might be forgotten for weeks. So, I have consciously chosen to install a bias for completing small actions. If a task takes less than two minutes, rather than risk losing it to the black hole of “later,” I get it done and move on.

macro photography of brown and gray squirrel

These sorts of conscious biases can help us to recognize our patterns of behavior and design a preference for counterbalancing actions.

Conscious Bias for Leaders

Over the weekend, one of my favorite people to follow on Linkedin, Anne Bono, put up a poll.

In some other Leadership circles, the options presented might be:

  • Results
  • Profitability
  • Growth
  • Grit
  • Hustle

…or some other hyper-competitive business-first, profit over people options.

One of the reasons I love following people like Anne Bono, Chris Lin, Yvonne Alston, Future Cain, and Robin Dreeke is because they put humans first. One could argue that they all exhibit a bias toward people, making decisions on the basis of how it impacts other people. This results in a bias for kindness, empathy, compassion, transparency, respect, equity, and trust.

These are consciously selected biases that they have internalized to such a degree that it has probably become unconscious to them.

Every leader has the opportunity to choose some of the biases they will allow govern their approach. While countless articles have been written about the much celebrated “bias for action,” I believe that as a leader, what you really need is a bias for care.

The Bias for Care

When you make your first instinct, as a leader, to care about others, a multitude of behaviors are likely to follow. When we care we naturally…

  • treat others with kindness
  • give generously and embrace vulnerability,
  • respect others, provide transparency, and build trust

Without these behaviors, few other pre-conditions can put a leader in the position to succeed. Results, profitability, and growth, all rely on a cohesive team that brings their best to each endeavor.

We can use biases to our advantage, by selecting for the biases that make others feel safe and consciously practicing them.

If you ask me, it always starts with care. I believe it so much, in fact, I even wrote a book about it, just for you.

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