When discussing bias and prejudices with colleagues, I have more than once heard the sentence: This is not a problem for me. For others, yes, but I am free of bias… I think. Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: No one on this planet (and to my knowledge in the whole universe) is free from bias. There is a pretty simple explanation for this: Because we all have a brain. As a team leader, our most important job is to be aware of this fact, accept it, and act as independent from it as possible.
Selective Attention and Selective Perception
We are exposed to millions of stimuli around us every single day. If we would experience all of them with the same intensity, we would probably go mad. We would not be able to focus on anything, let alone decide what is important and what isn’t. Here’s where our brains come into the picture: They do a wonderful job of filtering those stimuli for us, so that we have to deal with less stimuli in the first place. This works fine in most of the times, but there have been several experiments that prove how the brain can be tricked. If you’re asked to focus on a specific issue or situation, you might miss other significant information. You may be familiar to the short video of people throwing a basketball (experiment by Daniel Simons). When you’re asked to count the times that the people in white shirts throw it, you are 50% likely to miss the big gorilla coming on stage, pounding its chest and leaving again. Your brain did almost too good of a job by really letting you focus on the throw count. The gorilla does not wear a white shirt so… why let you know that there was one on stage?!
The important takeaway is that you will miss information, everyday, in every conversation or encounter you have. It might not be a gorilla every time – but it could be. Your brain uses several cues to know what to filter. Among those are your past experiences, your current mood, your own point of view, as well as your own gender, age, or upbringing.
Trust Yourself But… Also Don’t
If you are a leader and you usually decide everything based on your gut feeling, you should now be concerned. You might have missed crucial details in the past! If you now think But it always turned out great!, then remember: Your brain has a built-in filter function. If you decided based on your gut feeling, and you are confident that it would turn out great, you are more likely to focus on cues that support this hypothesis, rather than seeing counter indications. However, this does not mean that from this point in time onwards, you should not trust your own decisions anymore. On the contrary, you always have to be able to trust yourself if you want to be a good team leader.
The problem rather is that as a leader, you frequently have to leave your comfort zone in order to improve your brain’s filter options. This accounts for every decision as a team leader.
Starting with who to hire – if your brain knows from your experience that you feel most comfortable with white, middle-aged men, it will automatically pre-filter all applicants regarding this. If you have previously had negative experiences with said white, middle-aged men, you are more likely to mistrust applicants with these characteristics. Note that this is not a conscious process; you will most likely never sit in your office and sort out someone while thinking Nah, he’s white and middle-aged! – but you might have a gut feeling that he will not be the best fit for the position. Now, we all know that white, middle-aged men are usually not the demographic group that is discriminated by implicit bias. If you were raised in an environment where you seldomly had contact to people of color, or of the LGBTQI+ community, applicants of these groups might just seem not as qualified as applicants from groups that are more familiar to you, or with whom you previously had great experiences. Being a good and fair team leader, and leading diverse teams, starts with you leaving your comfort zone and reflecting upon your own positions.
The same rules apply to every feedback or developmental meeting you might have with your team members. There are two main factors that influence how you experience these meetings: apart from your own situation which I mentioned above, it is also your point of view and your emotional state about the subject of the discussion or meeting.
If your picture of your team member is already very fixed, you are more likely to receive cues that support your picture. For example, if you have a meeting with your team member about them not meeting their goals, and you expect them to find cheap excuses, you will probably only hear what supports your hypothesis. Of course, the same thing functions into the positive direction – if you enter the meeting and you do not expect any major issues, your gut feeling will maybe suggest to you that the issues that are brought up are not major.
If you are meeting about a topic that has emotional significance to you, or where you might have a strong opinion yourself, it might be difficult to find arguments for the other side. Or that’s how you might experience it. For example, if you’re meeting with your team about a new project, and you already have thought about the milestones and methodology you want to use – are you really listening to your team members, if they have counter suggestions? This is the typical Yes, but… situation that we all know. Instead of building up a plan together, everybody tries to defend their own approaches. So instead of listening to suggestions and integrating them into one joint solution, we end up on different ends and agree to disagree.
Everyone Needs Sanity Checks
How can you perform better as a leader, be more fair, and more open to the unknown? The way to achieve this is constant reflection, as well as frequently and consciously stepping out of your comfort zone.
As a first step, reflect upon your own situation. How were you brought up? Which experiences in similar situations have been most formative for you (negative and positive)? Analyze your work environment. What will be familiar to you, what will be foreign? If you know that you might pay more attention to the opinion of one team member, simply because you feel comfortable with doing so, that person reminds you of your former mentor, or you tend to lean towards persons like them, explicitly check whether talking times are equally distributed, and whether you heard all points of view.
Right before a meeting or talk, reflect upon your emotional state. How do you feel? What are your expectations towards the meeting? It will help you to stay open if you already know that you might lean into a certain direction. If you’re in a negative emotional state – stressed, sad, or even hungry – and you experience the meeting as bad, even worse than expected, or you get exasperated with your team member, take the time to breathe, and ask yourself: Am I maybe experiencing this more negatively than it really is?
The constant exercise that you should undergo constantly is enhancing your filters. You did the first step by being more aware of your own position, so now do something to enrich your experiences and make your filters more applicable to a diverse and colorful work environment! You can do so by joining an event that you would not consider in the first place, because what can you really lose (except for maybe two to three hours of your lifetime, in the worst case)? You can do so by thoroughly analyzing who to hire, and disregard characteristics like gender, age or nationality. You can take an online course about diversity in the workplace, or inclusive communication. Every little step helps, and will make you a better leader. So what are you waiting for? The time to start is now.