Tripping over our own bias [And why it doesn’t serve us]

By Susan MacKenty Brady on February 27, 2018


In my last blog, I shared my perspective on how running (not jumping) over hurdles is all about the approach—and ultimately, shifting our own behavior in order to conquer the hurdles to leadership advancement. To understand the hurdles, we must start with understanding the realities of bias.

It goes like this: we all have biases, known (conscious) and unknown (unconscious.) We process information in two different ways: explicitly/consciously and implicitly/unconsciously. Both ways impact behavior. Our implicit ways of processing impacts our attitudes and decisions—without us being aware. We automatically assume things about people born and raised in certain cities, countries, regions, etc. We judge people by how they look or present themselves to the world. We don’t do it on purpose, but we are all guilty of some sort of bias and judgment.

Imagine if you unknowingly carry these thoughts into the workplace.

Do you choose to do better work with colleagues whom you already have an unconscious bias toward? If you are a hiring manager, are you confident that your choices aren’t driven by bias? What if others are choosing (or not) to engage with you because of bias they are unaware of? At the least, it doesn’t feel very fair. At the worst, it perpetuates exclusion and ultimately limits results.

I look at bias in two categories: the bias of others—which we can’t control or change (but potentially can influence)—and our own biases, both about the world around us and about ourselves.

To lead with impact and fully engage my team, I made a conscious effort to confront some of my own biases about myself and others, and begin to better understand the biases others may have about me.

My own bias—and deeply-held belief—that [still!] trips me up is my bias toward action.

This one became clear early in my life when I fell in love with and married a man who likes to marinate in ideas. The purpose of pondering a topic wasn’t to arrive at an action or a “so what”—the purpose for him of thinking about ideas and connecting them to other thinking had nothing to do with taking action.  Looking back, it is clear as day to me now that I am—and have been all my life—biased toward clarity and action. I appreciate those who are efficacious and get things done. I get irritated when ideas stay adrift, without a clear plan of attack to bring them to reality. I like to dream big and then bring the big dream to life.

You can imagine how my husband Jamie and I might disrupt one another’s equilibrium at times. His bias toward exploring an idea—allowing time for it to steep like an invisible tea bag in steaming water, as if a vibrant and perfect cup of tea will eventually emerge—contrasts sharply with my bias to arrive at an immediate next step, to guarantee the utility of the conversation.

It is with maturity, and learning to slow down, that I now not only appreciate but also see the criticality of thinking and ruminating before acting. Twenty-four years after meeting my husband, I now have a peer (I’ll call him Paul) who shares a similar bias with Jamie. Paul is wise, has unique perspectives, likes to ideate, and I often leave our discussions unclear if we are 100 percent aligned about the next action following our discussion—or, if there is any next action at all.

I’m betting Paul thinks I act too fast and think too little, but being aware of my bias for action— and about Paul’s bias for cogitations—has me practicing patience and curiosity about what Paul thinks (Smell the tea, Susan! Smell the tea!) My only hope is that he (and Jamie) can honor my bias for specificity and action, and practice similar patience with me.

Many of us have biases about things we prefer. Many of our preferences are what we have been good at, told we are good at, or told is a good thing by those we respect or by those who raised us. I was encouraged and applauded for my ability to “get things done.” My dad’s motto—the words I hear every time I close my eyes and channel his abundant spirit into my consciousness—are “GO. FOR. IT.”

My bold, hardworking, action-orientated bent was what made me, ME. It was a moniker I wore with pride. I was a leader, a doer. (Those once were synonymous for me—another one of my unconscious biases.) Need something done? You can count on me. I (unconsciously) tied my worthiness (my value as a human being) to my ability to get ’er done. The problem with that? When I wasn’t “doing” (or, leading with a lot of my own effort) or going for it, I wasn’t ok. I wasn’t worthy. And that sucked.

What deeply held beliefs do you have about yourself that no longer serve you?

This is the question we ask when we work with women leaders about our own biases about ourselves. My answer to that question was somewhere in the mix of

“You can count on me.”

“I’ll do it.”

“If I don’t do it, it won’t get done well.” (control/perfection)

“I need to take action—to perform at a clip second to none—or others won’t see my value.”

And so on. As I explain each hurdle and my relationship to it, you’ll see how this deeply held bias for action has played out for me in ways I never meant—nor fully understood until recent years—and how my ability to lead hinges on reframing this internal bias.

Getting curious about our own bias is the place we must start. Gliding over all of the hurdles rests on our ability to get curious with ourselves, and in developing a practice where we hold ourselves in warm regard and with compassion while we do. What deeply-held beliefs might you have about yourself or others that no longer serve you?

For help with better understanding your implicit (unconscious) biases, check out any number of the Implicit Association Tests by Harvard’s Project Implicit at the following link

Posted in Blog, Executive Development, Leadership Development, Talent Management, Women in Leadership

About Susan MacKenty Brady

Susan MacKenty Brady is Executive Vice President of Global Program Strategy & Development at Linkage. She is responsible for guiding the global growth and development of Linkage’s signature immersion learning institutes, as well as public and virtual programming. Now in its 19th year, she also serves as the co-chair of Linkage's Women in Leadership Institute, which boasts a network of over 8,000 alumni worldwide. Susan's personal mission is to help leaders step in to lead their best life, and in support of that mission, she authored The 30 Second Guide to Coaching Your Inner Critic.

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