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Lessons in Leadership from a Rottie: Implicit Bias

Updated: Jan 22

Excerpt from an article published by VantageShift's CEO on Medium. Read the whole article here.

Photo by Suzanne ElNaggar

“Dog racism is real.”

I was at a beginner dog obedience class and chatting with the trainer about people’s reactions to our pup. The trainer considered what I had recounted about other pet parents moving away, even crossing the street, to avoid us while walking their own dogs and uttered the words above.

Our puppy is super sweet. You don’t have to take my word for it, ask the people who’ve noted how gently she takes treats. Ask the people who have petted her, played with her, helped to teach her.

I am saddened for the folks who, due to their biases, will never know the joy of Rottie friendship. It’s a loss for our pup, too, as the circle of potential friends narrows a little for her.

Once again, our Rottie is teaching me about leadership. This lesson is about implicit bias.

Understanding Implicit Bias

Defining Implicit Bias

There are many forms of implicit bias, especially around our appearance. Our weight, skin color, hairstyle, perceived level of fitness, and other traits can elicit reactions and actions in others based solely on those traits.

Heightism, an implicit bias, can affect others’ perceptions of your capabilities, strength, health, intelligence, and more. We tend to view tall people as more authoritative and fit for leadership, to be taken seriously and respected.

I’m short. When the pandemic started, I had just begun the interview process, all remote, for a new role. I onboarded remotely and worked with my colleagues via video meetings in which each person was an equal-sized rectangle on the screen.

When we were finally able to meet at a conference, the first words many people uttered when they saw me were, “I thought you were taller.” It was a demonstration of the implicit bias that they held that only tall people could be competent, confident leaders.

Costs of Implicit Bias

The effects of implicit bias can affect an organization’s bottom line. According to Forbes, some of the costs of bias include the following:

  • Decreased Productivity — Employees who perceive bias are highly likely to scale back their work contributions.

  • Employee Disengagement—Those who perceive bias in the workplace are three times more likely to be disengaged. They are also three times more likely to say they’re planning to leave within a year.

  • Stifled Innovation —Employees who perceive bias are over twice as likely to say they’ve decided not to share ideas or market solutions.

What Leaders Can Do

Let’s take a look at what I’ve learned from my pup:

Sniff First

When our pup is looking for information, she uses her nose. After getting a good whiff, she then knows to engage, withdraw, or continue to sniff for more data.

You need to do the same as a leader. There’s a good reason why we talk about an idea passing a “sniff test" - you need to gather information in order to make an evaluation.

If you find yourself judging someone’s capabilities negatively, ask yourself what it is about that person that is leading you to make that judgement. If your responses are mostly associated with personal traits, you should acknowledge those thoughts and do a reset.

It’s important for leaders to judge with objectivity. Set criteria for all your team members that are fair and commensurate with their roles and levels. Team members who perform the same job should have the same review criteria. Similarly, for differing roles at the same level, the criteria should be analogous in terms of task size as well as the amount of responsibility and accountability.

Take an Open Stance

Our playful pup assumes that every dog she sees is a potential playmate. Other dogs will often look her way and wag their tails in response to her approach because she communicates openness. And when she engages, she adjusts to her companion’s style and energy level.

Dogs will often maintain very friendly relationships with each other despite many dissimilarities, but humans tend to be more comfortable with people who are similar to them.

How often have you seen new executives replace existing staff with people whom they know from past workplaces? It’s unlikely that they recognize any sort of bias in their staffing decisions, they just want to ensure they have direct reports who “get” them and their ways of working.

The quest to surround ourselves with people who are likeminded often leads to bias against those who have different work styles, even when those who are different are actually more effective in their roles than their potential replacements.

As a leader, it’s important to be open to the possibilities that all of your team members present in terms of ideas, creativity, and innovation. It’s likely that talents they don’t share with you can enrich the whole team’s work. They can also help you grow your own skills and career.

Lead with Curiosity

When my pup sees a new sight or hears a new sound, she observes and sometimes vocalizes to see what response she receives. This process of discovery helps her to better understand her surroundings and the beings inhabiting the same space. Her curiosity has helped her to mitigate chances of inappropriate actions on her part.

You can similarly mitigate the effects of implicit bias.

Increase your self-awareness — As a coach, I can tell you that most of us are not as self-aware as we think we are. Recognition of one’s emotional state at any given point in time [and] to see yourself as others see you are key to being an effective leader.

Examine your reactions to others, especially if certain team members elicit negative emotions in you. Determining the why can set you on a path to overcoming bias you didn’t realize you had.

Educate yourself — There is a plethora of material available online. You can start with the articles I’ve referenced in this piece.

As a leader, you should be conversant on this topic. It’s imperative for you to work to ensure that your team experiences your leadership as fair and openminded.

Empathize — Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is experiencing the effects of implicit bias. Imagine having your abilities or skills questioned due to the color of your skin or your size or some other trait that you think shouldn’t matter at all in your job performance.

Then envision a champion stepping in who recognizes the differences but doesn’t allow them to dictate how you’re treated. You can be that champion.

From Biased to Boundless

As a leader, it’s important to recognize the potential for implicit bias and take steps to mitigate its effects.

Keep the lessons from my pup in mind and sniff first, take an open stance, and lead with curiosity. Reflect on your own biases and actively work to overcome them.

By embracing your team members’ unique qualities and contributions, you can create a more inclusive and productive work environment be rewarded with the engagement and innovation that results.

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