When working with others, it’s often easier to just keep your mouth shut and leave a situation than to confront something offensive they just said. But leaders don’t see it that way; they feel a compulsion to deal with it, right then or a short time later. There are legal ramifications and logistical aspects that one needs to deal with, but that’s not what this article will cover.
Here, I’ll cover the personal approach a leader can take with regard to seeing and dealing with biases in their team. It might feel like a “Let’s all just get along” sentiment at times, but in reality, that’s the ultimate goal – to get along in achieving some higher vision.
How it can be a problem
Unless you’ve been living off the grid, you’ve noticed the topic of news stories to infiltrate your conversations and social media newsfeeds. As a leader, you have your own opinions and they are important to the mission statement of your organization. When dealing with your team, however, opinions are often formed privately over-time and can be displayed publicly in an instant. Even though these opinions may have nothing to do with your team’s goals, each individual has underlying biases that affect how they see other team members. These biases can completely derail progress and provide a space for other biases to grow and perpetuate.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Most people don’t like admitting they’re wrong. There’s an opportunity to either duck responsibility or wholly own it whenever something goes awry. Self-serving bias, and a lack of awareness of it, drives people to accept awards for doing something special and hide in the shadows when their actions cause mayhem. What percentage of companies give to charity without creating a PR campaign announcing it, and what percentage of criminals turn themselves in for their crimes – spoiler: both are low.
Being around people who look, think, and act like you creates a situation wherein a single instance of diversity can be easily singled out. Cognitive dissonance gives people pause, but it’s also mentally stressful, when dealing with opposing ideas. People prefer their biases – so acknowledging something that disagrees with what they believe is not a natural inclination. When teams lack diversity, it’s easier for people to fall deeper into their own rabbit hole; when these individuals’ stereotypes or biases are activated, it’s near impossible to neutralize them.
Promoting Mindfulness of Biases
I’ve painted a fairly bleak picture here, as humans being these irredeemable creatures who are just going to be the way they are. But despite the countless conflicts throughout history, there is hope when dealing with bias. First, take the mindset that people are dynamic and can change over time. Treating people as though they are unchangeable will probably lead to them being just that. A key part of this mindset is that it will take time, but it can happen. From a leader’s perspective, you are exhibiting the behavior that represents the mindset you want to instill in your team. While you have more control when forming new teams, don’t expect existing teams to simply dissolve their biases because you made them aware of the concept. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither were biases.
If you are able to add diversity to the team, that’s great – but in many cases, it can be a half-measure. It’s necessary to promote social interaction to create shared experiences. When people are invested in other’s personal goals, they can set aside bias much more easily. When dealing with an existing team, look for the abundant similarities in your group’s makeup, then try to find people who don’t match that and would provide valuable insight to group’s blind spots. In teams that have yet to be formed, you have the opportunity to include varying backgrounds, cultures, and educations so that the exposure is represented from the outset.
Further, we can inhibit bias, however briefly, by approaching the behavior instead of the attitude. This is to say, people need to form a habit of skills that generate support for marginalized groups. Our biases are difficult to simply “get rid of” by acknowledging them because often they are nonconscious (i.e. You don’t know you have them). Well-developed training programs will use multiple methods to increase effectiveness in individuals with varying personality traits and levels of emotional intelligence. It’s important to remember that people formed their biases over years; a couple of training programs aren’t going to “fix” people; you need to give people to space to improve. What you can do is look for the motivation to improve that these individuals display to assess their commitment.
Sometimes it’s best to part ways. This isn’t to say that there are people who will never change; rather that there are people who are not willing to change right now. As referenced at the beginning, I’m not covering the legal or logistical portions of bias, stereotype, or diversity management. It is always a recommendation to consult professionals when you need to part ways – but rest assured – you need to part ways with those who will not change for your organization’s success. Growth does not have negotiable integrity.
Trying to meddle in people’s implicit feelings towards others can be extremely troublesome, especially if you don’t have a background in social psychology. When it comes to bias, our goals are not to control them, but to accommodate and map a new course for them. It’s imperative to look for motivated individuals, committed to the vision, not themselves. This will help filter out those who are more committed their own reality rather than the reality of what could be, which is invariably the world where effective leaders must live.