Bias-Aware Leadership | Kamau Consulting Group

Bias-Aware Leadership | Kamau Consulting Group

Biases exist everywhere in our society. They are deeply embedded in our day to day lives and can be difficult to avoid even with the most conscious minds. Let’s start off with an exercise. Google the word ‘CEO’ and click on images. You will find an over-representation of White Males. Now google the word ‘thug’. As of this writing, there is an over-representation of ‘Black Males’. Are you surprised by the findings? If you’re not, we can perhaps start there as this identifies a bias you may have, (including all the contributors through their reporting and posting over time on the internet), so this is beyond the search engine however powerful in displaying biases at play in people’s minds.

Biases come in all shapes and forms and is an inevitable part of the human brain. The mind works incredibly by categorizing things together and making connections to make it easier for us to choose between different options then takes short cuts in order for us to make quick decisions. Matthew D. Lieberman, David Rock, Heidi Grant Halvorson and Christine Cox at the Neuroleadership Institute condensed 150+ biases into five main categories that make up the SEEDS Model ™ which I have summarized for a quick analysis. (I encourage you to read the report to avoid my expedience bias)

  1. Similarity: The tendency to favour people who look or think like us over those who don’t.
  2. Experience: The tendency to favour our own perspectives over others.
  3. Expedience: The tendency to favour familiar & easier options as opposed to complex ones.
  4. Distance: The tendency to favour addressing the here & now and not the distant future.
  5. Safety: The tendency to favour less-risk by obsessing with the negative outcomes instead of positive ones.

When faced with unfamiliar settings, the human mind will use these short cuts from widely applicable or misinformed associations such as the stereotypes in our google search or others (mass media, stories from familiar faces etc) to inform decisions. Biases also act as adaptive processes that allow the use of past experiences to inform our decisions. Take for example an unfortunate experience with a dog that chased you down the street as a child. I know a few people (including a family member) who are terrified of dogs due to past experiences or suffering from a similarity bias from stories they have heard from others. Unfortunately, these experiences are pervasive in everyday situations.

The bottom line is bias is an inherent part of cognition and we do not necessarily have to treat it as a bad word. We must however consider that these biases as unconscious or unintentional present serious adverse impacts to Non-White people and especially Blacks in human interactions.

I certainly recognize that many societies may have labeled biases as a foreign issue. ‘That doesn’t happen here, we are one big happy family’, ‘Oh no, that’s a “country a” “city b” or “company c” problem. Yet when you look around, everything seems so homogeneous in appearance and functioning. It’s almost oxymoronic. To that end, many fell into the ‘not a problem here mentality’ trap(bias at play) and in turn never implemented any bias training or awareness. Yes, in this day and age, there are countless people receiving unconscious bias training for the very first time with the racial awakening from the tragic killing of George Floyd.

Unconscious bias training however is nothing new in Industry. Research has shown that unconscious bias training can be largely ineffective as you cannot train the bias out of anyone. Organizations have been suffering from the expedience bias by focusing on the individual however failing to holistically change what is by design broken at the Organization. It is almost like introducing new technology to your employees and creating awareness on its benefits and expecting them to use it however not providing them with sufficient tools to use the new technology. In order to bring effective change, Organizations must change the inherent systems that perpetuate bias by design. That also includes recognizing that there is a bias at play when anyone mentions ‘Unconscious Bias Training’ for previously trained teams.

With the recent racial unrest period and a pandemic that never seems to have an ending in sight, many Organizations are rushing with their expedience and distance biases to address tick boxes instead of reflecting and trying to understand how to address the big elephant in the room. In the process, many are repeating the same old mistakes and as is clear now, if left unchecked, these biases thrive into poor judgment and decision-making in our workspaces leaving so many disenfranchised and in turn, affects the bottom line for many Organizations. And yes, I need to underline that your Organization’s performance is only as good as the well-being of your teams. So how do Organizations seize this moment to address biases in a respectful and meaningful way?

Organizations must start checking their blind spots by practising Bias-Aware Leadership. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion must be embedded into every single policy and practice. It is my hope by now that if you’re reading this, you do acknowledge that there is a human problem which is simply a complex result of the lack of understanding of all communities that make up our society. As we discussed earlier, the human mind will do what is best to make sense of that it does not understand. This requires committing to an equity analysis strategy in both practice and policy. Here are some tips that PWC shared ᵃ on confronting bias.

  1. Broaden perspectives: Homogeneity kills diversity of thought and cultivates bias
  2. Be objective: Subjectivity limits your scope and harbours blind spots
  3. Overcome stereotypes: Stereotypes influence objective thought in effect perpetuating bias
  4. Challenge assumptions: Assumptions limit our critical thinking ability

Equity analysis must be an organic part of your Organization policy as bias is pervasive and permeates in many ways that are always lurking. Hiring practices and policy, succession planning, promotions, assignments, project management are just a few examples to consider. Bias-Aware Leadership must be cultivated everywhere. This is no different than checking your blind spot before making a lane change or better yet, looking at both sides before crossing a street. Leaders must invest in not only raising awareness amongst their teams but better yet walk the talk by developing workspaces that inherently check biases by structure and design. That includes starting at the top. Instead of obsessing with a right fit model, leaders must start considering how every position strategically addresses the customer or client concerns and if indeed the current collective team addresses those concerns or opportunities holistically. Now look around, do most of your work colleagues look or think like you? How about your team, do they reflect your views and perspectives? Let’s go further, what is the make up of your H.R department and are you confident they reflect a diversity of thought? How about your personal circles, do they reflect a fair mix of your societal mosaic? How are all these situations helping or hurting your inherent biases?

Share this blog

Want a diverse culture in your Organisation?

TD Accessibility Adapter

Choose the accessibility features that are relevant to you by downloading this plug-in to your browser