The Unconscious Bias Every Leader Needs to Know to Improve

The Unconscious Bias Every Leader Needs to Know

We all have biases. They aren’t all bad. I hold a bias that those in the medical profession are caring, intelligent and giving. It’s usually the biases with negative consequences that need our attention.

There are many types of cognitive bias. A bias is a way of thinking about the world or interpreting things going on around us which are patterns or systemic to us as individuals. Our experience of the world is subjective; we experience things in our own way. And we behave from our own perspectives hence why knowing a potential bias is helpful to determine if it’s has negative consequences and therefore needs to be reviewed.

Attribution Error

What is the Fundamental Attribution Error that creates bias? It is the idea that we attribute someone else’s behaviour to their character or personality, whereas we attribute our actions to external factors outside of our control. We hold other people fully accountable for all their behaviours, whereas we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We judge others personally for things, deciding that they were internally motivated to do what they did.

Here’s a real-world example: A client missed a session this morning which I was a few minutes late for anyway. If I attributed his no-show to poor planning and laziness and mine to the fact I was receiving a delivery, I’d be guilty of the fundamental attribution error. His character was to blame for his no-show whereas I justified my lateness because of the delivery (out of my control). (FYI, I didn’t blame him as he’s always punctual, so I knew something unusual, out of his control was going on, which it was).

Same with kids. Have you ever chastised your ‘lazy child’ for not doing their chores while you make an excuse for yourself for not getting your work done that day?

Especially Relevant When Giving Negative Feedback

This concept of attribution error came up recently at London Business School when I was delivering a (virtual) session on how to give feedback. When you are giving feedback please ensure you aren’t falling into the attribution error trap. Look at the behaviour the person is displaying and stay neutral about the intention or reasons for it (until you know).

Behaviours and the negative impacts of others are often attributed to character or personality under this error. They are mistaken for intentions often leading to you being emotionally judgmental (overtly or just in your mind) which then masks any understanding and empathy you might bring to the situation.

When you make an attribution about someone’s behaviour to their personality or character, those attributions tend to stick. They stick because of confirmation bias – we search for and interpret data that confirms our beliefs. That’s why it’s hard to shake a first impression of someone or something.

Other Implications

The Fundamental Attribution Error can impact any interaction you have. It can influence who you select to work on a project or get a promotion. It has been found to be the cause of everything from misunderstandings, hurt feelings to firings.

Unconscious Bias – 6 Steps to Address It

A bias is only unconscious if you don’t know you have it. Therefore, the first step in any development area is to start to become aware of it.

1. Notice what thoughts you have when others do something ‘wrong’ or act in a way that has a negative result versus your own actions. How often are you falling into the attribution error? What are the patterns you might have around blaming/judging/assuming? A specific person or situation?

2. Give people the benefit of the doubt until you learn more. If you notice you’re going to attribute someone’s mistake, error or bad behaviour to their character, brainstorm other possible attributions you could make to uncontrollable factors. This can help you break the cycle of attributing erroneously. What situational factors might be happening? These situational factors might be impacting more people than this one person, so could lead you to improve things overall.

3. Practice gratitude. When you notice your annoyed or frustrated with someone (even yourself), make a list of 3-5 positive characteristics or skills that they (you) have.

4. Get curious about what’s behind someone’s behaviour rather than assuming. As the image that accompanies this article suggests, get clear on what is real and what might be a figment of your imagination. You could ask them “what was behind that behaviour?” to learn more. Practice empathy – understanding what it’s like to be in their shoes and how they feel.

5. When giving feedback focus on the behaviour, not the intention or character. I recommend the COIN model which is “when you did/said this…” the impact was “this, this and this.” See here for detailed explanation. Ensure you see and understand a pattern of behaviour before making big decisions. If there are patterns of repetitive negative behaviours for someone, have a conversation with them to understand what’s behind it before making any big decisions about their work and role.

6. Look at your own actions for self-development. Look at your own patterns of behaviours with negative implications and examine if you need to do some development work. Are there themes in what you judge others for that might be applicable to you?

Awareness and understanding are the keys here to better interactions and hence results. You can’t really eliminate all biases and you can be aware and mitigate them to have the impact you want to have. This is especially important for the emotionally-charged times in which we are working and living. Our beliefs and biases about working from home, governments, mask-wearing, covid, racial unrest and more can cause division, blame and unhelpful responses if we don’t recognize and give consideration to others’ perspectives.

Book a COMPLIMENTARY coaching session with me here for support in further developing your leadership. What would make you more effective and fulfilled at work and/or life?

PHOTO BY ANNE TAYLOR