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Why Great Leaders Must Acknowledge Implicit Bias
Take a glance at any of your social media feeds, and more likely than not, your thoughts and ideas about the current political climate are affirmed by those in your social networks. Having our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs confirmed by knowing others share them can be reassuring, but it can also reinforce a feeling of certainty, which can lead to blind spots in our thinking. To navigate these challenging times, we would be wise to pay closer attention to what remains out of our inner circles and therefore outside of our conscious awareness. While our own perspective and beliefs may be obvious to us, we may not always be aware of other operations in our brains that influence those perspectives and beliefs.
It’s scary to think that there are operations going on in our brains that we don’t always have immediate access to, but there are. And they affect our everyday decisions. Take lunch as a basic example. You choose to order a burger and you might think it was simple hunger and meat preference that drove you to make that choice, but other variables actually came into play - the font of the menu, the description of the dish and the company with whom you are dining, to name a few. Even your neighborhood upbringing perhaps played a role in that burger consumption. It is these unconscious factors that lead to what’s called implicit bias.
Take this notion to the workplace and the consequences of certain decisions might be more than just indigestion. Unconscious factors - be them race, gender, socioeconomic, or otherwise - play a role in leaders and managers choosing to hire or fire an employee, offer a promotion or even invite someone to after work drinks, which while seeming small, can help propel someone up the corporate ladder. Think this does not affect you? Think again. No human is exempt from having implicit bias. We are processing so much information constantly; without it, no decision would ever get made. However, great leaders stand out when they are keenly aware that implicit bias exists and are constantly questioning and evaluating their own decisions and how they came to them.
At my institution, I teach a course at the MBA level called “Thinking About Thinking” where we attempt to get future business leaders to tap into their biases and assess not only how to solve problems but why they took the problem solving approach they did. It’s only in that reflection process that leaders can come to know their biases, and they can further tap into why they might exist. By respecting the everyday presence of implicit bias, great leaders can:
Implement better training for their employees. Once a leader admits that their entire workforce has bias in one way or another, they can provide training opportunities that might make everyone more aware, and thus work harder to improve relationships.
More closely evaluate employee promotions/hiring/terminating. When an implicit bias is uncovered, a leader might think twice about a certain personnel decision or choose to provide opportunities to employees that may otherwise be overlooked.
Pause...leading to more thoughtful decisions. I teach my students that taking a breath or a pause in the height of the decision making process can be the most meaningful action they can take. Often, that mental and/or physical space is needed to fully understand a situation and keep a clear head.
Better manage conflict. Effective leaders are mindful of interpersonal relationships and by being aware of implicit bias, can better mitigate potential employee/client/stakeholder conflict. This can lead to better productivity, which means better revenue generation.
Implement systems that account for bias. Since acknowledging that one has biases does not automatically eliminate them, leaders can design systems that account for biases. For example, professional orchestras implemented blind auditions to prevent gender bias when conducting auditions. As a result, the number of women in orchestras increased.
Talking about bias is extremely challenging; no one wants to do it. But when leaders and employees uncover and examine their unconscious biases and weigh them in the construct of their social identities, clearer decisions emerge. In this context, clearer, more thoughtful decisions make for a stronger and more ethical organization. It is then that employees might feel more appreciated, and the workplace might be more comfortable for everyone and more profitable in the long run.
Wiley Davi is chair of the department of English and Media Studies at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.