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Bias--The Good Leader’s Fatal Flaw
by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

"Bias" can be defined as "an inflexible belief about a particular category of people." Can you spot how the bias held by each of these leaders distorted their decision-making ability?

Case 1:
Gretchen listened patiently as the new Cambodian supervisor explained his design idea. She then nodded respectfully, said she’d think about it, and returned to her desk having understood very little of what the man had said. Gretchen later commented, "I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but Saru’s accent was so heavy I just gave up."

Gretchen’s Error: Her unwillingness to help Saru with his communication skills resulted in his inability to make his valuable ideas known. As a result, he was unable to advance in the organization and eventually decided to take both himself and his talent to a competitive company. This incident was just one more notch in Gretchen’s growing reputation as an ineffective manager.

Case 2:
Lucy manages a small group of native-Americans. Unfortunately, several of these otherwise good employees are chronically late to work. Having heard that some native-American cultures have a view of punctuality that is different from her own, Lucy decided to allow these employees to come to work 30 minutes later than their teammates.

Lucy’s Error: Lucy’s excessive accommodation of a cultural difference, not only disrupted the morning production hours at her company, but created resentment and tension on the team.

Case 3:
Henry, who had been mandated to increase the diversity in his department, decided to hire Roger. "Sure," Henry admitted, "Roger wasn’t the most experienced nor educated candidate, but I wanted to give him a break because he was in a wheelchair. Besides, I figured the fully-abled members of the team could pick up the slack."

Henry’s Error: Henry lowered his standards in order to hire Roger. As a result, he created tensions in his workplace because, as it turns out, teammates did indeed have to pick up the slack created by Roger’s inexperience. Eventually, Henry was forced to let Roger go for poor performance. Consequently, Henry gained a reputation " paradoxical though it may seem " as being ineffective at meeting his diversity goals.

Right about now, you are perhaps scratching your head saying something like, "Wait a minute, these people aren’t biased. They might be a little too soft, but, besides that, they seem like nice people to me." Yes, they are nice people, but that "niceness" does little to immunize them against one of the most dangerous and subtle types of bias there is: "Guerilla Bias."

Like the guerilla warrior who hides within stands of lush foliage, "Guerilla Bias" is concealed behind good intentions, kind words, and even thoughtful acts. As you can see from the cases of Gretchen, Lucy, and Henry, "Guerilla Bias" is based on the perverse premise that all women, emerging groups (formerly called "minorities"), people with disabilities, and those who are outside the so-called "majority" population are to some degree fragile, quick to explode, or in need of special treatment. Manifested in behaviors ranging from a reluctance to coach a black employee for fear of appearing racist to excessive accommodation of cultural differences, "Guerilla Bias" has done as much to distort leadership decisions as many more diagnosable and, therefore, eradicable strains of the disease.

The first step in ridding ourselves of bias is to become mindful of the ones that are preventing us from being effective leaders. This short quiz will help you begin this awareness process. Ask yourself these four questions:
  1. When I first encounter someone from another group, do I immediately make an assumption about their qualities, character, and abilities?
  2. When I think of someone from an emerging group, do I tend to think that he or she will need preferential treatment or extra coddling?.
  3. Do I make a greater effort not to hurt the feelings of someone who is different from myself than I do if that person is from my own group?
  4. Do I find myself feeling less comfortable when coaching someone who is different from myself?
If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," there is a reasonable chance " nice person though you are " that you have some biases that interfere with your ability to lead effectively. Once your bias is identified, you will be able to recognize it when it arises, acquire the habit of shoving it aside, and get on with the business of holding every employee to the same high standard of excellence.

Copyright Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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