The road sign in my home state of Washington read: “Litter and it will hurt.” I didn’t think twice about it, but our guests from nearby Vancouver, British Columbia, mouthed the slogan out loud and could hardly believe their ears. They were traveling with us to a birthday party of a mutual friend.
“Of all the nerve,” said the wife with a shudder. “I get what State officials are trying to do with their ecology campaign, but you’d never see a sign like that in Canada. That message is way too impolite. People would take it as a threat.”
Spot the biases
I chuckled. I’d read that sign lots of times, and it had always struck me as a realistic warning about litter’s impact on the environment, not a personal threat. But the comment from my Canadian friend reminded me we all have our own biases. We see things through a particular lens that’s been shaped and molded by our respective subcultures.
Politeness is highly valued in Canada. Citizens from the Great White North tend to go out of their way to say “thank you, excuse me, and sorry.” In ’Merica, we like our road signs to reflect our politics. Blunt.
Are you aware of your own biases? Every leader needs to learn to overcome the harmful effects of behaving (or thinking) with blind spots.
Back when I worked as a newspaper reporter, we were trained to ferret out bias—both other people’s and our own. A bias is any particular slant we embrace that’s either for or against something or someone. A bias can rear its head in an outlook, a tendency, an attitude, an opinion. Biases usually develop over time. We might not even know they’re there.
Not all biases are harmful. For instance, maybe you were trained to value the next generation’s contributions. So you instinctively prize internships and constructive role modeling on the job site. It’s possible to hold a positive bias toward helping people, the same way you might have a positive bias toward avoiding donuts and choosing spinach at mealtime.
Yet biases are often negative. We’ve all heard stories of unfair prejudice against someone’s ethnicity, disability, orientation, or religion. If you avoid certain people or tell jokes about them, then that’s most likely a bias. If you infuse an unwarranted opinion into a report or speech, that’s most likely bias. If you’re part of an group that practices selectivity in hiring, admitting, or serving people, that may well be a bias too, often with legal ramifications.
What’s the risk of letting bias continue unhindered? When we’re blinded by a bias, we’re shortsighted or unfair in our thinking. Our communication can be hampered. Our biases can come across as insensitive or rude, as in the case of the road sign. Ultimately, our innovation and performance are stifled.
Here are three actions help combat bias:
1. Develop empathy for others
Ask yourself: What’s it like to be your customer, walk through your doorway, and encounter the product or service you’re selling? Learn to see through your customer’s eyes, not your own.
Dr. Shelly Cunningham, a graduate school professor of mine, constantly taught that any target audience is not a homogeneous mass of people who all think and behave the same way. Rather, it’s a loose collection of individuals, all with distinct personalities, worldviews, and needs.
For instance, in a university classroom, a 50-year-old Korean woman might sit alongside a 21-year-old football star. What’s it like to be that Korean woman? Imagine yourself in her shoes. Or put yourself in the cleats of the 21-year-old. The life experiences of both students will be different, yet a savvy educator works to reach them both.
2. Seek broader perspectives
I recently helped a young Marine write his memoir. The book’s acquisition editor, a man who lived and worked in New York City, received another job and left the company midway through the process. So the project was transferred to a different editor, a woman who lived in the U.K.
It was insightful to see their distinct editorial styles at work. The Marine and I saw the difference in specific word choices and sections of text that were either bolstered or cut. The U.K. editor helped broaden the book’s readership beyond a solely male, military, or American perspective. Ultimately, the book will be more powerful thanks to the new editor.
The key for any of us is to intentionally run ideas, messages, and products by people who hold different perspectives than we do. Beware of groupthink. Welcome the unique voices who can broaden understanding.
3. Audit your business for bias
Psychologists tell us that biases are seldom rooted in antagonism. We don’t become biased because we deliberately set out to harm others. Rather, our brains create biases as a way to “navigate the world with marginal effort.”
Conscious decision making uses up a surprising amount of mental energy. So our brains prefer running on default. We tend to make decisions automatically, almost unconsciously, lumping situations and people together, going with what’s convenient, grabbing at the lowest hanging fruit on our mental branches. Problem is, what’s convenient might not work best—or reflect reality.
It takes work to see and break biases. The key is to develop systems to regularly and deliberately look for our blind spots and then help us overcome. Biases can limit opportunities. We need to constantly ask: What biases might be getting in the way? And then take steps to overcome.
The key is to develop empathy, seek broadened perspectives, and consistently reflect on and test our own views and values.
We might not be able to escape all our biases, but we can become aware of them, challenge them, and adapt our viewpoints and practices accordingly. Ultimately, this helps us become better leaders. We might even be able to put up road signs that are blunt and polite.