We are all human, and as much as we might try to be objective as leaders, we are going to bring our own set of biases into the workplace. I am using the term bias here to describe any belief, tendency, or preference you may have toward a particular perspective that interferes with your ability to be objective and impartial. It is not uncommon when you hear the word bias to immediately think about the very serious forms of ethnic, racial, and gender bias. These forms of bias are insidious, and there is obviously no room in a healthy workplace for any of them.
But in addition to these biases, I’d like you to think about some potentially less obvious ones that may be part of your belief system. They could be hiding just under the surface and they can be as destructive to your credibility and the productivity of your team as overt prejudice. Your biases are part of who you are, and you bring them into each and every decision you make. You may already be aware of how some beliefs might interfere with your objectivity, but others may be so deeply ingrained that you are not conscious of them.
To illustrate this, here are a few statements I’ve heard over the years that indicated to me at the time that the person making the statement might have a potential bias that could interfere with his or her ability to be objective.
- “I will never again hire a woman manager in her child-bearing years because she will end up getting pregnant and going out for six months.”
- “He’s from the South so I am concerned he won’t be able to keep up with how fast we move here.”
- “I would have hired him, but he takes public transportation to work so I don’t feel he’s reliable.”
- “I don’t like to hire young mothers as their kids will make them late all the time.”
- “I will get rid of anyone who has an affair. If a wife can’t trust her husband because he cheats, why should I?”
- “I feel he deserves more money; he has a family to support and she is single.”
- “He’s not a candidate for this job. Realistically at his age, he’s just looking to coast to retirement.”
- “This guy is really a drain on the department and I should let him go, but I feel bad, he just had a baby and he needs the job.”
I believe that none of the managers making these statements meant to be unfair or to discriminate. Whether these beliefs were conscious or unconscious, the result was that it affected their judgment, their results were compromised, and people were adversely affected in the process. The more ingrained a bias or belief, the more likely we are to passionately defend it if challenged and the less likely we are to question it.
Be honest with yourself. Do you believe any of the following?
- Single mothers are unreliable.
- Men with families need their job protected more than single women.
- Older workers are less productive than younger ones.
- Minority employees will immediately claim discrimination if you try to give them negative feedback.
- A woman would never lie about an incident of sexual harassment.
- Anyone placed on a performance plan will eventually lose their job.
- A certain group or class of people can’t be trusted.
Take an honest look at your strongly held beliefs and become aware of how they might impact your decisions. Be cautious that they don’t inadvertently influence your decision making process when hiring, determining compensation, applying discipline, and terminating employment. Increasing your awareness of the areas in which you may have a bias now will help you to head off trouble down the road.
What do you think? Does every leader have some hidden bias?
Excerpted from my book, “You Have to Say the Words: An Integrity-Based Approach for Tackling Tough Conversations and Maximizing Performance.” Available from Achievement Press and everywhere books are sold.