How our personal bias limits leaders.

There are many qualities that make a great leader. Whether you head up a small team in your office, are the CEO of a large corporation or a leader on the world stage the same qualities apply: clear vision, sound decision-making and the use of team strengths through delegation. Unconscious bias limits all leaders, as beliefs and attitudes that go unacknowledged and unchallenged undermine a leader’s impact and effectiveness.

Everyone has biases. These belief systems and outlooks take shape in our formative years when we don’t have the cognitive ability to reflect and critique. These attitudes become so embedded in our thinking that we no longer question their validity or usefulness and are unaware of how they shape much of what we do and say. For those who lead others, who need to present a clear vision for the future of their team, being aware of and understanding our biases is essential.

Bias limits leaders as it clouds vision

First, unconscious bias clouds the vision of a leader by limiting what they are able to see. This is evident in political arenas where often policy (vision encoded in law) is reduced to a three or four-word slogan. Examples range from Stop the Boats and Make America Great Again to Get Brexit Done. Such slogans are effective rallying cries behind which others can gather. However, policy shaped by biases can never be impartial – bias that privileges border protection over humanitarian relief, bias that is limited to only one way of looking at what makes a nation, and bias that ignores the wishes of a large percentage of the population. Vision is vital for a leader. When that vision is clouded by unconscious biases it is harder to make clear decisions.

Bias limits options

Second, leaders need to make unimpeded decisions. It’s essential that leaders look at a variety of aspects and considerations. Then, drawing on their experience and knowledge, make a decision that is best for the team. Bias limits the considerations and operations passed under review. I regularly mention my experience working with asylum seekers on Nauru because it, cliché-ishly, changed my life. I came face-to-face with my racist bias in the first month I was there. I’m so glad that happened because when I needed to make decisions that impacted the whole cohort of asylum seekers, I was able to see clearly. Because bias impedes our ability as leaders to make clear decisions it can further interfere with how leaders delegate responsibility.

Bias undermines trust

Delegating responsibility and tasks to team-members is a third vital aspect of being a good leader. At its heart, delegation involves trust. A leader must trust that the person to whom they delegate a task or responsibility will be able to fulfil that role. However, a leader who doesn’t feel they can trust people in their team finds themselves with a greater workload as they do the job themselves or micro-manage others. There may be good reasons why a leader chooses not to delegate to certain team members. However, bias can be so entrenched in an organisation or corporation that it is rarely questioned. Thus bias ensures that particular groups are rarely selected for senior roles or greater responsibility. Unconsciously, the message is given that this group is unable to be trusted. Consequently, both the team and the leader are impacted.

Strong leaders have three qualities in common: clear vision, sound decision-making abilities and they display trust by delegating roles and responsibilities. Unconscious bias can cloud that vision, impede decision-making and impact delegation. But it doesn’t have to be this way because bias is a choice. Would you agree? Why? Why not?


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Why building cohesion can be wrong for your team.

The aim of many leaders is to have a cohesive team. By that they mean a team that has similar values, is on the same page in terms of culture and goals and has little conflict. While cohesion is a worthwhile goal, having it as an over-arching focus can mean that valuable assets can be lost. This is because we can’t see the trees for the wood, we confuse unity and uniformity and we do not recognise the need for healthy conflict.

See both the trees and the woods

The old saying, “You can’t see the wood for the trees” infers that focussing on details clouds the ability to see the big picture. However, the inverse can apply in teams – you can’t see the trees for the wood – where the talents and input of the individual are subsumed by the needs and goals of the group. It is important to strive for cohesion in teams, because cohesive teams are incredibly productive. However, it is equally of value to discover how individual talents and goals can be brought to the table to benefit both the individual and the group.

A couple I once worked with studied for and gained their PhDs. On completion, they applied for positions within the organisation where they could make use of their education. On being turned down time and again, the couple left the organisation and took their skills elsewhere. For whatever reason, the skills of these two ‘trees’ were not valued, and so the ‘wood’ lost their expertise. Helping team members develop their skills and reach their goals benefits both the individuals and the team as a whole.

Uniformity is not unity

In a push for cohesion, a team or corporation can value unity but unconsciously promote uniformity. An organisation may say that it needs fresh blood and new ideas. However, it often doesn’t take long before that “new blood” is expected to conform. While alternate viewpoints and external input are outwardly touted as important, uniformity is what is deemed most desirable. However, uniformity does not mean unity, as those who are compelled to conform feel under-valued and overlooked. Team members who feel this way do not bring their best to the table, no matter how good their intentions. While unity and cohesion may be the aim, beware that uniformity is not unconsciously championed.

Conflict is needed for growth.

However, the most important reason why aiming for cohesion can be the wrong thing for your team is that healthy conflict is essential for growth. Conflict is difficult. Handling conflict is uncomfortable. Avoiding conflict by seeking cohesion can seem like the best way to be productive. Conflict occurs when people don’t see things the same way – conflict of outlook, goals, mindset, values. However, conflict is a given in any team, in any relationship. For the sake of outward cohesion, team members may not overtly or actively share their own goals or seek to develop individual skills. However, pursuing personal goals and agendas is often done covertly and passively, resulting in tension and unacknowledged and unresolved conflict.

Being courageous enough to bring conflict into an open arena isn’t easy. However, a team that understands that healthy conflict allows differences to be aired and examined also recognises that at the end of the conflict process lie new ideas and ways of achieving team and personal goals. Handling conflict well and in a healthy manner are the marks of a mature person and a mature team. And when a new team member is onboarded, part of their induction can be the knowledge that conflict is inevitable and conflict resolution does not mean conflict avoidance.


Cohesion is a great goal for any team but…

But if the ‘trees’ get lost in the ‘woods’ then both the team and individuals lose out. If uniformity is prized then real unity is lost. When a team and its leadership don’t recognise the value of healthy conflict then true cohesion is impossible. True cohesion can occur when ways are found to use the strengths of all team members and utilise their unique viewpoints, even if that means working through conflict. What ways have you found that healthy conflict has grown the cohesion in your team?

Gender Bias: When what you do screams louder than what you say.

Most of us would be familiar with the old adage that actions speak louder than words. What we really think and feel is seen so clearly in what we do, regardless of what we say we believe. This is nowhere more readily seen than the area of gender bias. The push towards gender equality has been advancing since the early 20th century. It began when women across the globe demonstrated for the right to vote. While, on the surface, gender equality is touted as the norm, gender bias is still operating in many covert ways. Three ways this happens are bias in the voices we privilege, in the idea of promotion by merit and in our jokes and language.

Bias privileges the voices we listen to.

I grew up in a conservative Christian tradition. I went to church every Sunday and listened to the minister give his message. The voices of authority in my formative years were all male. As an adult, I leaned into male conversations. I was convinced they were more articulate and learned. In studying for my degree, the texts recommended were primarily from male authors. Token female voices were thrown in for an alternate or fringe viewpoint. It took me decades to realise that I privileged men’s voices. I realised I needed to begin listening to the voices and opinions of women.

While I claimed to support gender equality my actions in listening to the voices of men rather than those of women showed my true attitudes. Once we become aware of an unconscious bias, we have the choice as to whether we allow it to continue to influence our lives and decision-making.

Bias works against promotion on merit.

Second, is bias in promotion on merit alone. This attitude is often loudly touted but I question the validity of the ‘merit alone’ claim. At the base of most organisations, gender balance is fairly even. However, as the structure tapers, fewer women are in middle and upper management. There are even less at board level. Those, both men and women, who argue for promotion based on merit as a valid alternative to quotas, fail to recognise that with men more readily promoted than women we are  communicating that women are less capable than men across many fields – and very few of us would willingly say that out loud.

The gender bias towards men is embedded in the systems that support organisations. Gender bias is part of the very structure of corporations. This is not surprising given that business, science, academia – indeed most areas of endeavour – have been the playground of men for millennia. To truly support gender equality and combat covert gender bias, we must address just how both systems and structures favour men and disadvantage women.

Bias operates in the language we use.

A third way gender bias operates at an unacknowledged level is in the language we use and the jokes we tell. As a mother to three sons, I spent much of their teenage years telling them that just because something was funny didn’t make it right. This was in response to their predilection for humour at the expense of others or which denigrated or degraded others. And it’s not only men who use humour and language in this way. Women do as well, such as when we refer to other women as ‘bitches’. Language that dehumanises places barriers between people that are resistant to equality. We can’t say we support gender equity if we dehumanise others by our language or denigrate them by our humour.

Gender bias is alive and well and functions unnoticed and unacknowledged in our language, attitudes and systems. Both men and women suffer from gender bias and it operates in both trivial and important arenas of life. When our actions speak louder than our words with regard to gender bias, we are both complicit in its impact and responsible for its demise.

How Unconscious Bias is Killing Your Ability to Choose.


An old Chinese proverb says that a fish is the last one to know what water is. The fish swims and breathes in water. While water is essential for its life, the fish is oblivious of that fact, taking its environment for granted. But more than this, water shapes a fish’s entire life. Unconscious bias works in a similar manner. Unconscious bias is the tendency each individual has to privilege certain people and ideas and to dismiss others. Bias unconsciously shapes our lives and decision-making and limits our choices in three ways. First, it limits the scope of choices we have by confining us to what is comfortable and reinforcing an unwillingness to consider alternate options. Second, it hampers the clarity we need for making decisions by clouding our thinking and introducing irrelevant constraints. Third, unconscious bias undermines the values we hold dear as it works against our conscious belief systems and privileges compromise.

Bias limits our range of choices.

Unconscious bias limits our scope or range of choices by confining us to the comfortable. Choices are so much easier to make when we stay within the boundaries of what is familiar. Our individual “comfort zones” are broadly made up of the people we identify with plus the ideas we consider acceptable. The people we associate with and the ideas we align with are, in turn, largely determined by our biases which are formed unconsciously and to which we pay little if no attention – until someone or some life event challenges them.

Because challenges ask us to step outside these parameters and become uncomfortable, we are less willing to consider options that are new or different. In this way our choices are narrowed back to the known and secure. For the most part, the thought processes that determine whether we consider the new or stay with the comfortable are unconscious and rarely questioned.

Bias hampers our clarity.

Bias also hampers our clarity in decision-making because it clouds our thinking. We believe that we see things clearly, and that we are objectively open to all available options. However, we all wear lens of various shades. These different hues form from our life experiences, what we learnt as children, and our cultures. Just as person born with poor eyesight is unaware that they don’t see clearly until they get a set of glasses, so our biases unconsciously cloud our ability to make clear decisions. We are unaware that we do not see things clearly.

One of the chief ways this “blindness” happens is that biases introduce irrelevant constraints. These constraints may be a person’s nationality, language or faith background, or gender. These factors are not necessarily bars to someone’s ability to do a job but unconscious bias, based on externals rather than looking at all that a person or option has to offer, means that our decision-making abilities are hampered.

Bias undermines our values.

Finally, unconscious bias undermines our cherished values by working against our conscious belief systems. Working on Nauru with asylum seekers was when I first became aware of the “water” I was swimming in. I realised that I had a subtle fear of these men with different skin colour, faith and language to myself – a latent racism made itself known to a woman who would have said she didn’t have a racist bone in her body. When bias from our “water” remains unexamined, we can compromise our values. We choose the easier route over the one that aligns with our values and challenges how we see ourselves. We stay within our comfortable boundaries rather than taking an active step out into the unknown. As I confronted my latent racist bias, I learnt to embrace difference, seeing it as an asset rather than a threat.

Unconscious bias is such a restrictive force in all our lives. It limits the scope of our choices, hampers the clarity with which we make decisions and undermines the values we hold dear. However, once we’re aware of the water we swim in, we can choose to leave it behind. What are some ways you’ve found for addressing your biases, and leaving your “water’ behind?


What do we do with difficult emotions?

Earlier this week I felt tired. Exhausted in my inner being, and my body reflected that weariness. The cause of this fatigue was more emotional than physical – the sum of a couple of triggers at both the personal and collective levels. I was experiencing a number of difficult emotions.

One trigger came out of the current political climate in Australia where, having just had a federal election, the man who is now our prime minister I don’t trust – based on personal experience of him and his party’s policies in the past.

The second trigger came in my role as executor of my mother’s estate. This has been a fairly painless role thus far, but some conversation with my siblings (and we all get along well and resolve our differences amicably) touched deep-seated fear and emotion that surprised me.

Life difficulties cannot be avoided

Difficulties in life cannot be avoided and come at us when we least expect them. Some we can plan for (by having health insurance for instance), but most take us by surprise. And all difficult experiences change us, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not. When hitches and snags arise some of us like to hurry past them as quickly as possible and then ignore or bury any accompanying emotions. Others of us take the tough times in our stride and look to find the gold in the dross.

But it doesn’t matter which approach we take to worries and complications in life, these events and circumstances change us, incrementally. And deep wounds can be left unacknowledged. Until something triggers an emotional response and we find ourselves in tears, freaking out, angry or frustrated – and not sure why we are feeling what we are.

So, what’s a healthy thing to do when those difficult emotions jump up and bite us?

Before I answer that, let me ask another question: what do we do with pleasant emotions like happiness, love and contentment?

How do we handle pleasant emotions?

We usually don’t have any problem knowing what to do with these feelings – we embrace them, we share them with others, we even revel in them. If we’ve got a new baby in the family, we shower them with love and post all over social media so others can share our joy. If we’ve got that job we wanted, or the promotion we’d been aiming for, we celebrate with friends and family, going out for dinner and taking lots of selfies. The common response to easy-to-deal-with emotions is to hope that they continue for as long as possible.  And we invite others to join us in what we’re experiencing.

What do we do with difficult emotions?

So, what’s a healthy thing to do when those difficult emotions jump up and bite us? The same thing – share them with others. Not to make other people sad but so that we can appreciate more fully that all our emotions are valid, need to be honoured and given space. And I’ve found that as I do this, as I allow myself to feel the hard things, then they dissipate more quickly than if I’d tried to push them away. I then more readily return to a state of equilibrium.

That said, this is not necessarily an easy thing to do.

In the first situation I alluded to, as I shared my feelings with a trusted friend, I sought validation of what I was feeling – because I thought maybe I was over-reacting. I found it hard to accept that I felt what I did. In the second, I rang my sister to share my response. Like my friend, she was supportive and heard me out. And again, I had negative self-talk around what I was feeling. Was I being emotionally manipulative?

Interesting isn’t it, that even as an emotionally aware human being, I still doubt the validity of the more difficult emotions, whereas I would never doubt my reasons for feeling happy or loving someone.

How do you handle difficult emotions?

I don’t have all the answers (I hope you weren’t expecting something earth-shattering here!) But what I do know is that I can value everything I feel. I know that all my emotions are valid and useful. And I continue to learn about myself as I allow the tougher feelings to have their space. All emotions tell us something more about ourselves.  Emotions are keys to deeper, as-yet-unexplored, parts of who we are.

I hope you’re on that journey of self-exploration and self-leadership. And if you ever feel the need for a coach along the road, I’m here. Fill in your details below and I’ll be in touch. Or check out my coaching programs here.

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Don’t honk your horn – I’m just changing lanes.

I posted on LinkedIn about choosing to run in our own lane. Some people responded that they did this well. Others, like myself, felt it was less easy. And I started to wonder why some of us found comparison with others to be normal and the shift to focusing on running in our lane more difficult.I wondered how much the desire to conform added to this issue. And whether changing lanes could be an option.

The expected lane

As a child, it was instilled in me that I conform to certain tenets of behaviour. It was important to fit it, to be like everyone else. Conformity was prized. Following accepted norms was the “right thing to do”. And doing something outside the norm was frowned on. After all, “what would the neighbours think?” In childhood and youth my focus was on being the quintessential “good girl” (or qgg as one friend quipped). I took that focus into adulthood, but transferred it to being the good wife, one consequence of which was that I stayed in a dysfunctional and emotionally-abusive marriage for far too long. It was only after I left the marriage that my journey to “my own lane” began.

When conformity is prized then comparison and competition are natural consequences. If a prescribed outcome is the goal, then doing it better, achieving it faster and maintaining it longer than others is a measure of success. Competition with others is built into this way of doing life.

And if you fall behind that standard, by comparison with others, then there must be something intrinsically wrong with you. You’ve failed to “keep up with the Joneses”! Because you must always stay ahead, knowing what “ahead” looks like can only be determined by comparing yourself favourably, or unfavourably, with others.

Comparison and competition. Twin sisters in the conformity game. But changing lanes is an option.

The chosen lane

Learning to identify my “lane” has been a journey, and it began with my divorce. In that one huge step I deliberately moved outside the norms I’d been raised with. I was changing lanes into unfamiliar territory.  I had to unlearn many of the tenets and principles of my past as a new way of doing life emerged.

And making this shift doesn’t mean that I haven’t known myself – it’s more that I haven’t seen what I intrinsically bring as being of value. I haven’t valued the lane I was gifted with at birth. But I’m learning to. It takes practise and readjustment. I’m learning to resist the default pathways or what is perceived as the “right” way of doing things.

I’m learning to trust my intuitive genius and to act on it. And I’m noticing that when I give into the old norms (such as implicitly trusting the judgement of those in leadership even when I know in my soul that to do so is not right for me) I often emerge the loser. I am much more successful when I follow my path, my way of doing things because doing so is authentic and works with who I intrinsically am.

What’s your lane?

If you’re someone who struggles with conformity, comparison or competition, I’d love to know if these are concepts you learnt in childhood. And if you don’t struggle in this, what the messages you were given as a child that enabled you love more freely in your own lane. I look forward to some great comments and conversations as we connect the dots about our lives.