Leaders who cultivate psychological safety within their teams create a diverse pool of talent. But biases stand in the way of psychological safety. Find out how you can become more aware of your biases and work with them, rather than allow them to work against you.
Human beings face a fundamental contradiction. We are inherently social and wired to connect. Co-operating with each other is crucial for our survival as our interpersonal skills are a core part of our adaptive social toolkit. Yet we are also hardwired to spot and react to differences. That we do so without really being aware of doing so or how it informs our initial perceptions of each other. These are our unconscious biases at work.
Cognitive scientists have named several biases that frequently occur in all of us. For example, the first two things we notice when we meet someone new are their skin colour and gender. This instinctive evolutionary bias is linked to our survival, regardless of whether we are in any danger. We also have learned bias which we absorb throughout our lives from society, media, education, family, friends and so on.
Realising that Biases Affect Decisions
Deadlines, stress, and overwhelm can aggravate our biases as we are under pressure to make fast decisions with limited information. Under these circumstances, we are even more likely to be influenced by our past experiences and inclined to make biased and poor decisions.
When you’re a leader, these biases affect your team’s psychological safety. It may be the difference between creating a high performing team versus a dysfunctional under-performing team with low retention. Leaders need to be aware and mindful of both their instinctive and learned biases. How their biases are impacting how they show up as a leader, their behaviour, presence, verbal and non-verbal communication.
Employees on the receiving end of biased decisions may feel excluded, frustrated, even angry and this will certainly impact on their performance at work. A biased performance review process is subsequently damaging to both the employee and the organisation, resulting in high calibre talent leaving and looking for work elsewhere.
Evolutionary bias means people are drawn to those who are like them in the in-group at the expense of those who aren’t, i.e., the out-group. Most leaders will want to view themselves as inclusive or neutral yet the fact that the upper management in most companies is typically dominated by white males paints a very different picture.
Ask yourself the question: which ideas and ways of working have a strong emotional attachment and a resistance to change? Be open to the ideas and experiences of those who aren’t in the in-groups.
CEO, Mastering Your Power
Overcoming Your Hidden Assumptions
We tend to discount or disregard information that disagrees with our assumptions, even if there are well-proven facts to the contrary and despite any risks associated with doing so. This is confirmation bias, and one of the most challenging ones as it takes time and commitment to overturn.
This can happen if we are too quick to draw conclusions and make assumptions without fully exploring the details of a situation. Active listening is the key.
Core leadership skills such as: staying focused, using your intuition, confidence and quick decision making are important. Yet, without self-awareness of your biases and limitations, they can end up working against your, and your team’s, best interests.
Avoiding Tunnel Vision
Staying focused is a desirable quality in achieving goals – yet if the focus means having a biased tunnel vision, you’ll miss the opportunity to involve a diversity of ideas and thoughts. Creating a space for innovation and out of the box thinking. The result may be mediocre and not fit for the future.
Having a strong ‘gut instinct’ or intuition is a powerful leadership skill. However, relying purely on intuition can lead to flawed reasoning and decision making. When making decisions, we can all rely too heavily on intuition and use flawed reasoning sometimes. The learning here is to assume that any intuitive decision will have an aspect of bias. Rather than jump in and act on instinct, incorporate a process which pushes you to spend time thinking about possible outcomes, objectives, and options that will lead to better choices.
Ask yourself the question: which ideas and ways of working have a strong emotional attachment and a resistance to change? Be open to the ideas and experiences of those who aren’t in the in-groups. Managing these interventions by developing a coaching style of leadership means actively listening and asking powerful questions. Other ways of breaking our biases are through initiatives such as reverse and reciprocal mentoring programmes linked to organisational goals.
ABOUT OUR GUEST WRITER
CEO, Mastering Your Power
Salma Shah is an Accredited Coach and the founder and CEO of coaching and leadership development platform Mastering Your Power – the only training provider that offers coaching through the lens of diversity, inclusion and equality. After 17 years working corporate roles in the Technology sector, Salma began her coaching career to help fellow coaches, managers and leaders understand how to coach and lead someone who is a minority in a majority space. Salma is the author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching: A Practical Guide (Kogan Page).