Don’t let bias derail you


Psychologists explain cognitive bias as the result of “subjective social reality”. If we’re human that’s something we can’t avoid. As we make our way in the world we’re likely experience three types of bias that can derail us – particularly when we lack the skills to navigate around it.

Limiting beliefs are the biases we hold about ourselves and the situations we face. Over the years we’ve crafted our stories of things we cannot do and the circumstances we are powerless to change. In a self help book some years ago I came across the sentence: “We believe we are limited and so we act in accordance with our limitations”. A good coach will help us challenge our limiting beliefs – but that’s not to say we’re always wrong.

Sometimes we’re limited because we lack the skills to make the change. This was the situation with a recent coaching client. She was holding herself back from promotion as she felt that work-life balance would be impossible in a more senior job. She’s a skilled and capable woman and her employer thinks highly of her. And she wants to be there for her children as they change schools, navigate their teenage years and make career choices. She’d tried working part-time several years earlier and had fallen into the trap of cramming five days’ work into three.

When we looked at how she might craft a more flexible job and manage her boundaries more effectively she suddenly began to see new possibilities. Yes, she had been limiting herself but not because of a lack of confidence or ambition. She simply lacked the right skills.

Unconscious bias has become a popular ingredient in corporate Diversity initiatives recently. The idea is that where women’s careers are concerned male managers make biased assumptions and act accordingly. So – for example – a woman with children may not be offered the challenging projects or time limited pieces of work. The underlying conjecture is that her priority lies with her children and she would be better placed with less demanding work.

European research has confirmed this may well be what’s going on. The problem is that the maanger is making assumptions without full knowledge of the circumstances. And women become annoyed to find they’re suddenly being treated differently. The key is better communication that starts from a win-win assumption. If you’re the woman in question it’s likely to fall to you to open the dialogue; and explore how you can craft a working arrangement that suits both you and your manager.

Perhaps most challenging of all is the third type of bias – stereotype threat. First discussed by psychologists in the mid 1990s stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s social group. It can be a concern that one’s negative performance will taint the image of the group or that one will be seen stereotypically. And when it comes to working mother there are a lot of stereotypes around.

Even if they’ve never heard the term it seems to me that many mothers succumb to stereotype threat. They don’t ask for flexibility – afraid they will be judged negatively and that this judgement will be extended to other working mothers. Or they worry their desire for better balance will result in others thinking of them negatively – as a “typical mother”. So they struggle on.

When we step up to balanced leadership we open ourselves to the possibility of negative judgement. Bias exists. But as I’ve said before: if we have a plan it’s easier to navigate the concerns of others and to win them over to our way of thinking.