Five biases to watch out for as leaders 

  • 8Minutes

According to UK-based Toby Mildon – one of our favorite Diversity & Inclusion Architects here at Growmotely – one of the traits of inclusive leaders is being aware of our blind spots. Wonderful! Now that we all know that, we are well on our way to becoming more inclusive as leaders. Hmmm. The problem, however, is – of course – that we can’t see our blind spots. It’s a catch 22 – we need to be aware of them to become more inclusive, but we aren’t able to be aware of them (at least by ourselves) because otherwise they wouldn’t be ‘blind spots’. (!)

A good place to start when it comes to shifting into consciousness on this front – which Toby cites as being an important part of inclusion – is a framework put forth by the NeuroLeadership Institute called the SEEDS Model®. Although this Institute has identified more than 150 common biases, they have grouped them into five broad categories…which we can explore here. (With Toby’s help of course…)

⁜ Bias #1: Similarity Bias –> “We prefer what is like us over what is different.”

As humans, this one is such an easy bias to fall prey to. In Chris Weller’s article that outlines these biases, he writes, “Similarity biases most obviously crop up in people decisions: who to hire, who to promote, who to assign to projects.” It’s important that we don’t let this one go unchecked lest we (unconsciously) “hire employees who remind us of ourselves”. Yikes! Weller suggests one way that we can overcome this bias – as leaders – is to actively look for common ground with people who appear different. One of the ways at Growmotely we ‘fight back’ against this bias is through our commitment to Culture-First Hiring. First and foremost, we are looking for people with whom we have common ground when it comes to our inclusive company values (e.g. Transparency and candour, Empowerment and ownership, etc.) – but ultimately, outside of that, we actively seek difference. Be sure to talk about this similarity bias (that we all naturally have – no reason to feel ashamed!) with your team members; ask them where they think you are falling short. We can use each other as our mirrors. 

⁜ Bias #2: Expedience Bias --> “We prefer to act quickly rather than take time.”

Weller asserts that “expedience biases crop up when we are reviewing employees and rely solely on one data point or recommendation.” An eye-opening experience that Toby had with one of his client’s vis-à-vis ‘fighting back’ against this bias was related to a unique hiring practice that the two of them had put into place. Weller suggests that “the fix [for this bias] is to take more time to gather a wider array of information,” and this is what Toby and his client did. They decided to give candidates a technical challenge to solve – a challenge that resembled a piece of work that the person in the role might actually need to do on the job. In the course of running this new hiring practice – that had been thoughtfully crafted (and not rushed) – the hiring manager began to realize that it wasn’t actually a java script developer that he wanted to hire…it was – rather – someone who could learn new computer languages quickly that he was after. This realization resulted in a complete rehaul of the job description in question and created an evolution of thinking in the way the hiring manager saw job descriptions in general and the candidates who applied for them.

Toby shared that – in his experience – he has noticed that hiring managers often want someone who can hit the ground running, instead of hiring someone who might need some time to grow into their role, but who actually might have more long-term potential. Taking action to counteract this expedience bias will undoubtedly reap rewards…as evidenced in this example.

⁜ Bias #3: Experience Bias --> “We take our perception to be the objective truth.”

The poem that comes to mind when thinking about this bias is called – The Blind Men and the Elephant. In this 19th Century poem, six blind men of Hindustan go to see an elephant. Each man touches a different part of the elephant’s body and shares his observations. The man who touches the elephant’s tusk, declares that the elephant is like a spear! The man who touches the elephant’s tail notes that an elephant is like a snake. The one who touches the elephant’s side? A wall! And so on.

And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long, 
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.

Weller writes about this bias: “We assume our view of a given problem or situation constitutes the whole truth.” And, “to escape the bias, we need to build in systems for others to check our thinking, share their perspectives, and help us reframe the situation at hand.”

One of the ways in which this experience bias shows up in remote teams, is when leaders make assumptions about the resources and/or the experiences that their team members have related to remote work. So, for example, if my work-from-home situation is comfortable and conducive to getting work done – and I LOVE it – I am prone to make assumptions about others having a similar set-up or experience. This is a mistake, however, as the truth – of course – is that each person’s experience differs. One of the solutions, by the way, on the market to level the playing field when it comes to remote work is Clark Jacob‘s co-working space concierge service called FlexDeskCompanies can use this service to offer team members who have less-than-ideal work-from-home situations viable alternatives. 

⁜ Bias #4: Distance Bias --> “We prefer what’s closer over what’s farther away.”

Weller writes that this “bias reflects our instinct to prioritize that which is nearby, whether in physical space, time, or other domains.” He suggests that one way to mitigate this is to create “systems that acknowledge important figures outside our immediate proximity”.

In globally-distributed remote teams, one way that this can rear its head is related to time zones. This distance bias suggests that – if we’re not careful – we might be prone to hire people on our own (or nearby) time zone or give projects (or promotions) to people who share a nearby time zone. Consultant Sacha Connor has a few suggestions in her article on the topic when it comes to ‘fighting back’ against this bias:

  • If you have questions about a project or business issue: consider first who is the “right” person to ask – rather than considering who is easiest to ask or who is closest to you.
  • Be aware of time zone differences and equally share the pain of early morning or late-night meetings.
  • Jump-start (and equalize) relationships by meeting together in person

⁜ Bias #5: Safety Bias --> “We protect against loss more than we seek out gain.”

The maxim that comes to mind when I think of this bias is one from my childhood: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. This expression is surely useful in many cases – and for many people, but I’ve come to realize over time that this way of thinking often doesn’t gel with my true nature. Or the nature of many entrepreneurs. All that being said, safety biases – as Weller explains – “slow down decision-making and hold back healthy forms of risk-taking.” He suggests that we can mitigate this bias by “getting some distance between us and the decision – such as by imagining a past self already having made the choice successfully – to weaken the perception of loss.” 

Ernie Smith – in his article ‘Five Kinds of Organizational Bias That Could be Ruining Your Remote Meetings’ – gives an example of how this might play out in remote-first teams. If a leader is relatively new to the remote-first company space, he or she might focus on potential losses from progressive remote work policies (e.g. unlimited leave, or work anytime from anywhere) rather than the potential gains these policies might create. 

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The bottom line is that the more we, as leaders, are conscious about how our behaviors affect the inclusion of other people, the more our company cultures can thrive.

You might be gratified to learn that with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the things that was surprising to Toby and the clients with whom he was working was just how fast companies and teams were able to implement change. When push came to shove, teams mobilized and made the changes that were called for. This bodes well for our journeys, as leaders, to become more conscious as it relates to our biases. Let’s mobilize swiftly, as we know that it’s possible, and do what it takes to create positive change in ourselves and our teams on this front.

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