Uncovering biases is critical for leaders due to bias’ significant impact on decision-making, team dynamics, and overall organizational performance. Leaders who recognize their biases can make more impartial and fair decisions, fostering an inclusive environment where all team members feel valued and respected. Moreover, addressing biases helps leaders improve relationships and collaboration within the team, all while promoting ethical leadership principles that are focused on integrity and social responsibility.
Addressing bias has the benefit of facilitating personal growth and emotional intelligence, thus enhancing a leader’s credibility and trustworthiness among their teams and stakeholders. By actively working on blind spots, leaders set a positive example for others, inspiring a culture that embraces diversity, creativity, and innovation. That ultimately drives long-term success for their organization, too.
We wrote 50 Questions Inclusive Leaders Ask after spending time with leaders who wondered how they could be more aware of their own biases. We’d receive questions like the following: “Is it okay to base hiring decisions on whether I’d enjoy sharing a three-hour plane flight together?” “I’d like to hire more diversity, but doesn’t that mean lowering the bar?” “Why would I consider that woman for this promotion? She’s expecting a child and the role involves a lot of travel.” All of these questions show various forms of bias — affinity, attribution, and gender bias, respectively.
Bias can manifest in various ways at work, impacting performance evaluations, decision-making, hiring processes, and interactions among colleagues.
Here are some examples of common biases that can occur in the workplace:
- Gender bias: When individuals are treated differently based on their gender. For instance, women may be perceived as less competent in leadership roles, leading to fewer opportunities for promotions and career advancement. We often hear that “men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on performance.” Or that a woman who negotiates and speaks assertively is “aggressive and bossy,” while a man who does the same is “assertive and commanding.” These statements are examples of gender bias.
- Racial bias: Racial bias involves making judgments about individuals based on their race or ethnicity. We’ve seen this bias manifested in products that were developed by homogenous teams, including — public restroom hand dryers that don’t recognize dark skin, band-aids that for decades were only available in one color described as “flesh,” and pulse oximeters that give improper scores to those with darker skin. We also see it in the microaggressions often experienced by people of color in the workplace. For example, asking to touch a Black woman’s hair or assuming someone is not proficient in English because they’re an immigrant.
- Confirmation bias: This occurs when individuals seek out or give more weight to information that confirms their preexisting beliefs while disregarding or downplaying contradictory evidence. In the workplace, this bias can lead to poor decision-making, as leaders may ignore data that challenges their preferred course of action. If a person consistently shows up late, for instance, you may attribute it to their being lazy or undisciplined. Once you’ve made this decision, everything they do is colored by this preconception.
- Halo effect: The halo effect is when an individual's positive qualities in one area lead to the automatic assumption that they are exceptional in other areas as well. For instance, if an employee hails from a top university, it’s assumed they’ll have great potential and a strong work ethic.
- Affinity bias: This occurs when individuals favor or feel more comfortable with people who share similar backgrounds, experiences, or interests. Affinity bias can lead to hiring decisions based on personal connections rather than merit, which can limit diversity within an organization. Hiring someone from your sorority or fraternity or someone with whom you’d enjoy a drink after work are good examples of affinity bias.
- Conformity bias or groupthink: This occurs within a group of people when the desire for harmony and conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. In such situations, the group prioritizes consensus and agreement over critically evaluating alternative viewpoints or considering potential risks and drawbacks. As a result, individual members suppress dissenting opinions or avoid expressing contrary views, leading to a lack of diversity in thought and potential errors in decision-making. Ultimately, the project might encounter problems that the team could have mitigated with more open and objective decision-making. To avoid groupthink, we suggest starting with the more timid voices in the room and proceeding around the table when you’re interested in having every voice heard.
- Age bias: Age bias involves making assumptions or treating individuals differently based on their age. Younger employees may be seen as inexperienced and in need of continual recognition, while older employees may face stereotypes of being resistant to change, technologically challenged, or approaching retirement.
- Proximity bias: Also known as geographical bias or distance bias, it’s a type of cognitive bias that occurs when individuals give preferential treatment to people or things based on their physical proximity or geographic location. In our new hybrid workplace, it’s not uncommon for people who show up in the office to receive plum assignments or promotions because they are more physically present and visibly available. During virtual calls, people on the screen are often forgotten while those in the room dominate the discussion. In these examples, top talent may be overlooked and their ideas ignored because of physical distance.
- Beauty bias: This is when individuals are treated differently based on their physical appearance. Attractive employees may be perceived as more competent or receive preferential treatment compared to their less physically appealing counterparts. Consider: A study by the University of Florida found that male CEOs were, on average, approximately three inches taller than the average American male population.
Our book has 21 questions to ask for uncovering your own biases. We suggest pondering each of these and asking what their answers may mean for you as a leader.
21 questions to help leaders uncover their biases
- How comfortable are you participating in diversity-related events or conversations?
- Do you correct racist, sexist, or homophobic comments or jokes?
- Do you stay current with blogs, articles, books, magazines, or news broadcasts from diverse authors and perspectives?
- Do you follow or interact with people on social media who hold different opinions and perspectives?
- Is your circle of friends diverse in their physical appearance, perspectives, and lifestyles?
- In the workplace, do you always eat lunch with people who look like you?
- In the workplace, do you only or mainly mentor, network with, or sponsor people who look like you?
- Who are your “go-to” people in the workplace? Do they look and think like you?
- Are you a racism bystander or upstander? Are you an anti-racist?
- Where do your privileges/advantages exist? Where do you lack privilege/advantage (e.g., socioeconomic status, education, skin color, ableism, sexual preference, gender)?
- Do you intentionally educate yourself on diversity-related topics?
- Do you know the difference between prejudice, bias, and racism? Can you identify examples?
- Have you advocated for someone who was different from you? What was the outcome?
- If my first impression of someone is negative, is that my bias showing up?
- Do I listen to others share their experiences, even if I disagree with them?
- Do I lean in when others present conflicting views?
- Does my social or professional circle look and sound like me? If so, am I missing important perspectives?
- When someone is interrupted or spoken over, do I amplify their voice?
- When in a group or meeting, do I ensure all voices are heard?
- Am I more interested in sounding smart or in learning from others?
- Do I move more readily to curiosity or to judgment?