Archive for choice

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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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?

 

The Dance of Withdrawal

Just recently, I experienced someone withdrawing from relationship with me.

This was a significant relationship. It had been a close relationship. The reason for the withdrawal was one I understood and respected, and was not permanent.

But it still hurt.

Not only did it hurt in the moment, and the days of moments which followed, but it tapped into past experiences of withdrawal. It tapped into the pattern of relating in a long-term relationship where withdrawal was a tactic used to keep me and my concerns at arm’s length – so that valid issues did not need to be addressed. It tapped into another relationship in which a friend would withdraw until they sorted things out – and only then, if I was lucky, would I find out what some of the concerns might have been.

We’ve all experienced withdrawal, and it always hurts. We felt it in childhood when a good friend wouldn’t ‘play with us anymore’. We experienced it in adolescence when young love is not reciprocated or our boy/girlfriend ‘drops’ us for another. We sense it in intimate relationships when our partner is not ‘with us’ even though they may be physically present.

And the reason withdrawal hurts so much is that feelings of rejection usually come along for the ride. We question ourselves, our worth, and our ability to love and be loved. Everything about us is called into question – because there must be something wrong with us or why else did the other person withdraw? Right?

I didn’t quite go there, because I know I’m OK – not perfect but quite OK. But what I really wanted to do was withdraw myself, harden my heart, and distance myself from the situation.

But I had a new path to take.

I have started reading some of the writings of Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr. He wrote, “Our experiences of ordinary life will transform us if we are willing to experience them fully.” He went on to say that “We see this ‘ordinariness’ in the…sin and war, adultery and affairs, kings and killings, intrigues and deceit, and the ordinary, wonderful and sad events of human life.”

Rohr concluded his reflection by noting that it was into this ordinariness that God stepped in the person of Jesus – the implication, for me, was blinding.

I was not to withdraw from the ordinary messiness of the situation I was in. I certainly had to allow my friend the space they needed but, even though I was hurt, I was not to withdraw – I was to stay engaged.

Withdrawal is part of my backstory. Those experiences of withdrawal had the potential to keep me in a pattern of behaviour – you withdraw, I withdraw. But now, I had the chance to turn my backstory of withdrawal into a superpower of engagement.

That decision to stay emotionally engaged did not take away the pain, but gave me purpose. It shaped how I responded to the next few weeks. It shaped my attitudes and my actions.

What had the potential to keep me stuck, and anchored to past ways of behaving, became a sail to catch the wind so that I could move into the future of this relationship freely and lightly.