Waking Up to Our Unconscious Bias

This post shared from Leadership Coaching  Co-Director Bill Pullen’s blog at bpacoaching.com. See the full version of the post here!

I approached a breakout session at a recent conference and felt immediately uncomfortable. I was struck by a desire to turn around and find another session to attend. I felt unsure, out of place, suddenly less than the person I believe myself to be. What was the perceived threat generating an instinctive desire to flee? Someone different from me – in this case, it was a minor difference of physiology and language – the presenter was a deaf woman.

This is the insidious power of unconscious bias. After a powerful session earlier in the day on power and culture my eyes were open to my own relationship to identity and bias, I recognized the instinctive desire to leave but consciously chose to stay and find a seat instead–to open my mind both to the presenter’s message and my personal opportunity to examine and face my bias. It turned out to be one of the best sessions I attended both for the content, and more importantly, for the way her presence and way of engaging with the audience challenged my own biases and opened my heart and mind to someone different than me.

We don’t want to admit our bias.

Unconscious bias is a sensitive subject. Admitting it affects us forces us to examine parts of ourselves we may not like; to acknowledge how it limits the way we relate to others, our view of the world and ultimately our ability to lead and to achieve the impact we want to have in our organizations, communities and the world.

Facing our biases often requires a journey though the difficult emotions of fear and shame as we look honestly at who we are in order to step closer to who we want to be.

What is the source of our fear?

Survival instinct is at the root of this tribal behavior. Like it or not, the amygdala (our primitive survival brain) is hard-wired to look for danger in the form of differences. My friend and colleague Howard Ross, in his book Everyday BIAS, describes it this way:

“In real time being able to make quick determinations about the people we encounter and the situations we are in is critical to our survival. It is built into the fundamental way our brains function. Social identification is especially important because picking up social cues about the circumstances we are in not only helps us be successful, but more importantly it keeps us safe. However, what we think we may see may not clearly be happening at all.”

It is no wonder we limit our worlds to what is familiar, understood and safe – it gives us a sense of control. However, these unexamined biases limit our ability to lead in the complex, interconnected, global world in which we now live and work.

What are we missing?

As leaders we risk much by not examining our unconscious biases and those of our organization. Unconscious biases in the workplace can undermine diversity, recruiting, retention, engagement, collaboration and innovation. Biases can be based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, weight, introversion, extroversion, past experiences and much more. If we unconsciously organize the world around us so as to avoid our biases we limit our ability to build trusting relationships, work effectively with others and create organizations that bring out the best in others and ourselves. Our leadership is based on limited vision and we miss critical information. We create a culture where bias is visible and ignored, causing the targets of that bias to begin to predict it, to limit themselves and mute their own voices in defense against the exclusion and isolation they experience.

So, what can we do?

1. Courageously face yourself.

The starting point for any leadership transformation is having the courage to face oneself. This is true when it comes to our biases as well. Face it, if you are human, you have biases; it doesn’t make you bad, it makes you human. With this in mind it is critical for leaders to develop the capacity for self-reflection and examination. Tools such as the Implicit Bias Test at Project Implicit are a good way to begin to raise your awareness about your biases. Start to pay attention to your reactions and judgments and notice what the thinking is beneath the reaction.

2. Be willing to be uncomfortable.

In the example above I recognized my discomfort and rather than allowing it to hijack me and make me leave, I challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone. One of the most effective ways to begin to dis-identify with our biases is through exposure to people and groups we harbor biases against. This, like any significant growth or change, requires a willingness to step out of our comfort zones for the sake of opening our hearts and minds and creating a more inclusive environment for those around us.

3. Look at the world through the eyes of another.

A third way to reduce biases and create a culture of greater inclusiveness is through the intentional cultivation of empathy. Lindsey and Hebl in a 2014 study published in The Journal of Business Psychology found that perspective taking positively impacted self-reported behaviors towards lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals. Through their research they concluded that taking the perspective of others may have lasting positive effect on diversity related outcomes by increasing individual’s internal motivation to respond without prejudice.

This is difficult and dangerous work, examining our unconscious. Even blogging my personal experience on the subject feels risky – and yet without a willingness to recognize our own biases and face them, there can be no growth, we will continue to be ruled and blinded by bias we do not acknowledge. We will continue to build walls between people rather than bridges and will unintentionally create organizations where some voices are heard and respected while others are marginalized.

We no longer live in a world where we can easily close ourselves off from people who are different than we are. As leaders our colleagues, employees, customers, board members, and share holders represent seen and unseen differences which provide a wealth of insight and perspective to help us navigate a dynamic, complex, fast paced world.

Learn more from Bill Pullen on bpacoaching.com >>

Do you Haiku?

This post shared from Leadership Coaching faculty member Sue McLeod. See more from Sue on her blog at suemcleodcoaching.com.  

Presence is one of the fundamental skills of coaching. This ability to tune-into and be fully present with our client during a coaching conversation creates trust and intimacy, and signals to the client that we are listening, attentive and ready to meet them where they are.

Can you be fully present with another person, notice them with all your senses, speak to them in the present tense about what you experience without interpretation? Can you stay with them in the now without wanting to move to another time or place?

I think coaches are good at this. We practice being present during our coach training, we’ve experienced the benefits of the deep connections we create, and others tell us that we are great listeners. But I’ve heard from coaches that their attention can wander when clients talk too much; that their habit of taking notes means they are not 100% with their client; and when their “problem solver” gets activated that connection can disappear in a heartbeat. I, too, struggle sometimes with maintaining my coaching presence, so I’ve been playing with Haiku.

The instructions for writing Haiku are simple.

  • Find a place in nature and stay there for 30 minutes
  • Notice with all your senses
  • Write 15 syllables about what you notice
  • Write in the present tense
  • Write only what you experience – do not include your interpretations, judgments, or add metaphor, create simile, or refer to things that are not there.

Simple, but not easy.

Can you do it? Can you observe a single place in nature with all your senses for 30 minutes? Can you put into words only what you can sense, using only the present tense?

I can do it when I really focus and am intentional. When I begin, I notice that my brain likes to create simile and metaphor. My body likes to be moving, not sitting still. My spirit likes to be creating, not observing. “That waterfall sounds like an orchestra!”, “I could write a blog post about trying to write Haiku!”, “I wish I had my camera to take a photo of these trees.”, “I can’t wait to tell others about this beautiful place I’ve found.” or “I’ve seen enough here; it’s time to move on.”

These thoughts go through my head, until I settle myself down and remind myself to observe.

Buttercups move in the breeze.

Catbird jumps from branch to ground and back again.

Sky is blue. Grass is green…and darker green in the shade…and tan where the field has been mown in straight. Parallel lines.

The sun creates warmth on the back of my neck.

I hear children laughing in the distance. I hear birds chirping close in.

A soft breeze cools my cheek.

A church bell rings.

Here’s what emerged:

Soft breeze cools my cheek
Buttercups vibrate and sway
Noontime chimes

and, yes, it’s in the form of a Haiku.

Now, I won’t win any awards or accolades for my poetry, but that’s not the point. I’m satisfied with the experience; reminding myself that I can push aside the distractions, stay present, and find the essence of the moment.

Can you Haiku?

Learn more from Sue McLeod on suemcleodcoaching.com >>

Are You Contagious?

This post shared from Leadership Coaching & Transformational Leadership faculty member Chris Wahl’s blog at mirogroup.net.  See the full version of the post here!

Leaders…Your mood affects others.

Self-aware leaders practice noticing themselves and the impact they are having on others. It’s part of being emotionally intelligent.

Self-aware leaders recognize that their mood is a critical factor in the ‘field’ they create around them. What ‘field’ are you creating?

We all possess “mirror neurons” – neurons that fire both when we act and when we observe the same action performed by someone else – which means that when others are around us, they pick up on and imitate what we do, and feel what we feel. And we pick up on their behaviors and emotions. Have you ever noticed that when you are working with others who are positive and happy, you feel better around them? Or, if someone is always irritable or anxious, you may find you are noticing anxiety in yourself when you’ve been with them.

Leaders who are aware of their emotional contagion will pay attention to what they are conveying. If you as a leader notice that your organizational culture is suffering in some way (and there are many ways a culture suffers), notice how YOU are feeling about the culture. Are you worried, on edge, anxious, doubtful, critical, protective? If your answer is yes, look around you – chances are those you influence feel the same way.

Over and over in my coaching practice, I hear stories about leader contagion. No doubt a leader creating a negative field risks contagion and its multiple effects, such as direct reports and colleagues keeping the truth from a leader, doing work-arounds so as not to have to deal with the leader, hiding upsetting information, and creating team dynamics that are dishonest and backstabbing, resulting in eroding trust. And the positive contagion, when a leader creates a positive field, has wonderfully good consequences: well-being, caring, truth-telling, and problem-solving, results of greater trust.

Find a way to be the leader you wish to be. Live into a leadership stance that is inviting and enlivening – make that your contagion.

Learn more from Chris Wahl on mirogroup.net >>

The 10 Behaviors Of Strong Personal Leadership

This post shared from Leadership Coaching faculty member Scott Eblin’s blog at eblingroup.com.  See the full version of the post here!

Since writing the first edition of The Next Level in 2006, I’ve coached, spoken with, and observed thousands of leaders in action. Many of them have been good leaders. Some have been great leaders. The great ones have one big thing in common. Great leaders practice and exhibit strong personal leadership. They endeavor to live at their best so they can lead at their best. Their lives are structured for continuous improvement.

Here are the ten behaviors of personal leadership that I’ve seen the great ones practice:

  1. Self Reflection – Great leaders take the time to identify and articulate how they are at their best. They use their understanding to regularly stop and reflect on where they’re hitting the mark, where they’re not, and how to get back on track.
  2. Self Awareness – Great leaders are aware and intentional. They notice the physical, mental, and emotional reactions they’re having to what’s going on around them and they are then intentional about what they’re going to do next.
  3. Self Care – Great leaders understand that they perform at their best when they take care of their health and well being. They move throughout the day. They get at least seven hours of sleep. They manage their stress.
  4. Continuous Learning – Great leaders never stop learning. They challenge their own assumptions by asking why, seeking fresh sources of input, asking for feedback on their performance and going out of their way to experience and understand the lives of others.
  5. Listening – Great leaders listen. They listen to gather the ideas and perspective needed to solve problems collaboratively. They move beyond transactional listening and regularly practice transformational listening.
  6. Operating Rhythm – Great leaders know and leverage their operating rhythm. They know what times of the day and the week are the best fit for getting particular things done and they also pay attention to when they need breaks.
  7. Gear Shifting – Great leaders know how to quickly shift gears. Between one conversation and the next, they take a few moments to breathe deeply, clear their mind from the last thing and visualize what they’re trying to do next and how they need to show up to do it.
  8. Focus – Great leaders focus on who or what is in front of them. They are aware of the things that could distract them and are intentional about removing those things from their environment. They set themselves and others up for success by creating space to focus.
  9. Clarity Of Purpose – Great leaders know what they’re in it for. They have developed a clear answer to the question, “Why am I here?” Their answer to that question informs what they do each day and how they do it.
  10. Gratitude – Great leaders are grateful. They acknowledge the good things in their life. They understand that even on days when it feels like everything is going wrong, there is always something that’s going right. They build on that to create positive outcomes.

As a leader you control the weather. How you show up is predictive of how the people you lead will show up. To lead at your best, live at your best. That starts with personal leadership. What’s working for you in your personal leadership? What do you need to adjust? Which of the ten behaviors of strong personal leadership holds the most potential for you?

Learn more from Scott Eblin on eblingroup.com >>