Don’t let bias derail you

Bias

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.

The courage to ask

In their ground-breaking book “Why Women Don’t Ask” Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever identified the many ways social conditioning discourages women from negotiating; and the devastating impact this can have on a woman’s earning potential throughout her career.

When it comes to asking for flexible working arrangements, a further layer of barriers often comes into play:

  • Working mothers are likely to fall foul of “stereotype threat” – the psychological theory that we have a tendency to play up to negative stereotypes about us. Thus widely held prejudices that women should choose between children and career makes us reluctant to be seen playing into the stereotype and hinders us in asking for support to manage both at once.
  • We’ve bought into a corporate culture that devalues working mothers who – according to research – are widely held to be neither good parents (for abandoning their children to the care of others) nor good employees (for not focusing solely on work and career). And a culture that also frequently devalues less than full time working arrangements

Given these negative perceptions and their impact on self-esteem women often fail to recognise the leadership opportunities in stepping up and asking for more balanced working. All of this adds to the ‘glass ceiling’ and the continuing inability of women to progress to senior levels while juggling caring commitments.

But we’ve come this far in the last fifty years and I believe we’re at the point where we can complete the workplace revolution.

Excellent negotiation skills are an essential part of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. It’s something we explore in detail over the course of the Balanced Leader Programme. And good negotiators know the importance of preparation. So, before making that request to work flexibly make sure you’ve covered the following points:

  • First: be clear on the arrangement you want, how it will benefit you and your employer, any likely drawbacks; and how you plan to make it succeed. Consider the stakeholders involved both at home and at work and have a strategy for managing them.
  • Second: be clear on the value you bring to your employer and how that will not only remain but could possibly even be enhanced if you work your new arrangement. Remember that while your employer may initially feel he’s making a concession in allowing you to work flexibly you are – in fact – benefitting him by offering a way to retain your skills that supports your wellbeing and avoids heavy replacement costs should you otherwise give up and leave.
  • Finally, focus on the benefits and sell these to all concerned. If you suspect you’ll meet resistance identify the smallest first step you could ask for at this time. The one that will have the biggest impact for you. Once you’ve secured that concession you can move on to the next step – which won’t seem as hard.

See your efforts as an act of courageous leadership (and a way of growing your leadership muscle). At the root of the word courage is the French ‘coeur’ meaning heart. When we act courageously we’re taking heartfelt steps to make life better. Not just for ourselves but for those around us. Not just those we work with, but also our families and above all our children who will grow up with a model of balanced working to guide them.