Leadership and Bias

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

We all have them. Some biases we openly accept as our preference, some biases we do not explicitly mention because they might not be politically correct. At any point, we all have also faced the consequences of someone else’s bias. As a female in a predominantly male classroom in my UG, I personally faced the implicit bias of classmates preferring to group with other male classmates over me. On the flip side, I had pretty skewed biased perceptions of the men in the classroom as well. I am glad to say that with good surroundings, engaging classrooms, open discussions, and a little effort from both sides, both the biases got reduced over time. Then when I moved to the US for higher studies, I saw this aspect on a whole new level.

We have all heard the stereotype of ‘Asians being good at math’, or ‘Americans being good at public speaking’, or other similar generalized stereotypes. After being involved in a course on Global Leadership- Managing different Cultures, I learned the depth of the concept and its connections with leadership. In ways, biases are unavoidable. Our brain can only process round 40 bits out of 11 million pieces of info at a time. Biases allow us to process information efficiently. As a primitive quality of humans, biases help us in quick decision making- which can potentially save our lives by triggering a better flight or fight response during dangerous situations. But it can restrict our growth as a leader, especially in the globalized era. My go to approach now to avoid biases in my leadership positions is to look at the figure below (it is up on my wall as my memory retention is way less than 40 bits!). The first graphic, shows the type of implicit biases one could fall into –

Personally, I think implicit biases lead to a boring team, and hence a boring space for leadership. Professors only hiring grad students of their own race, employees hired from the same university as the employer went to, women being neglected for promotions due to affinity biases towards promoting male employees…. All of these, while possibly make it seem easier for the leader to make decision, it leads to a very plain team. Diversity in a team has been established in literature as a quality that promotes innovation and creativity. It also gives little to now opportunity of leaders to understand the cultural differences, leverage on the potential opportunities and synergies of a diverse group, and in businesses, potential to expand the horizons to new fields. I like to approach biases by intentionally challenging my biases from time to time. This is made possible after multiple, often uncomfortable discussions with people with different opinions then mine. Some of the best teams I have worked with, had a major element of diversity in them. Without a doubt, it is a challenge to work with people who think differently, are from a different culture, or do not share the same background. But this challenge leads to a much higher level of learning and creativity in the teams. It also gave me confidence in taking charge while being a minority in the teams, by seeing people who were equally different than others in the team. It also led me make wholesome connections and friends from all across the globe, open my perspectives of the world, and getting me introduced to a plethora of food options (trust me this is such a valuable benefit being in a foreign country!)

Author : Prerna Singh, Ph.D. Candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology

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