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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