Unconscious bias and leadership

Unconscious Bias, Leadership and SEX

“It’s not fair!”

No, life isn’t – and our workplaces aren’t either. Although few leaders and managers would admit to being biased, and HR departments invest time and effort into leadership and diversity programs that combat bias, unconscious bias still remains rife. And it causes significant harm to both the reputations and effectiveness of leaders, and also the lives of those they seek to lead.

It leads to poor decisions, unfair treatment, discrimination, resentment and poor utilisation of talent.

It’s natural. Being biased doesn’t mean that you are a prejudiced bigot – merely that your brain instinctively uses filters and shortcuts to navigate an incredibly confusing world. We all do it. We trust our feelings in terms of what feels safe,

Being biased doesn’t mean that you are a prejudiced bigot. It’s merely because your brain instinctively uses filters and shortcuts to navigate an incredibly confusing world. We all do it. We trust our feelings in terms of what feels safe, likeable, valuable, competent. Our brains are wired towards patterns and similarities where

Our brains are wired towards patterns and similarities when differences are harder to accommodate, so we – naturally – develop an unconscious bias to guide our thinking in certain situations.

Managing conscious bias? That should be easy

So, with implicit bias being such big problem, you’d think there would be lots of guidance and advice on the issue. Indeed, a Google search for ‘unconscious bias’ brings up almost 6 million results, which sounds pretty comprehensive.

But in addition to good tips on organisational arrangements to manage the risk of bias (formal arrangements in recruitment, performance managements and talent management to replace instinct with more objective measures), nearly all the guidance about how individuals can avoid or manage unconscious bias starts at the same point:

‘Recognise your own biases, understand them – then manage them’

This surely this misses the point.

This only helps us to manage a limited number of ‘identified’ or conscious biases and doesn’t, in fact, help us manage unconscious bias at all.

Identifying our biases

Although there are ways you can identify some of your biases, including seeking feedback and even tests such as the Harvard Implicit Assessment Test, these methods will generally only identify broad biases in relation to typical diversity issues such as race, gender, and age.

Unconscious bias is usually a lot more complicated and nuanced than that. Most managers and leaders in western democracies are highly aware of the risks of being seen to discriminate on diversity grounds and go out of their way to avoid the slightest suspicion of this sort of bias.

Workplace bias, however, goes much deeper than that – it’s about personality and behaviours across a vast range of variables. Increasingly, unconscious bias in the workplace isn’t about race, age and gender, it’s about introversion/extroversion, thinking vs feeling, big picture vs detail, conflicting motivations, and much much more.

That’s a lot more difficult to identify, and a lot more difficult to manage. Whilst some organisations invest heavily in personality profiling, it isn’t realistic or even desirable for all managers and leaders to rely heavily on these.

What individual leaders need, therefore, are some approaches to communication and behaviour that limit the risk of relying on their instinctive biases on an ongoing consistent basis.


Unconscious bias at this more sophisticated level is really all about: SEX. Let me explain.

The three main drivers of such bias in action are Similarity, the Emotions and eXperience.

SimilarityWe instinctively relate to, build rapport with, trust and favour those we are similar to. In the same way, we risk treating those who are dissimilar in some way less favourably.
EmotionsWe like to do what feels right. We like to go with our gut instincts and will rationalise any inconvenient information or messaging to support our unconscious instincts. We are proud of our instincts and will defend them. This gives great power to our biases, our irrational assumptions and our emotions.

We view past experiences through the filter of our biases – and then use these interpretations to reinforce, support and justify our biases.

In this way, unconscious bias can become a positive or negative cycle with each interaction seeming to validate our assumptions.

We go into each meeting expecting a person to behave in a certain way and this drives our perception of their subsequent behaviour. Managing our negative biases requires us to break this cycle.

To limit the risk of bias, leaders and managers need to behave and communicate in ways that limit the opportunity for similarity, emotions, and biased perceptions of experience to impact their experiences with others going forward. The following approaches can help:

The following approaches can help:

Disciplined active listening

We have to block out all the noise coming from our assumptions, expectations and past experiences to truly listen to the other person. We need to listen to every word objectively without judging or putting it through any of our filters.

Focus on the moment

An extension of this is to really focus on the moment and ring-fence conversations. Suspend the baggage that comes with your past experiences – as these will be prone to perception bias. Try to treat every conversation and interaction on its specific merits.

Yes, you will be aware of many of the assumptions you bring to each conversation – but you should be prepared to test and challenge them.

Recognise and challenge ambiguous language

Unconscious bias is an aggressive invader of any uncharted territory. It will lead you to instinctively fill the space left by ambiguities or uncertainties – if you let it.

To guard against unconscious bias filling such space, you need to consciously and consistently probe ambiguous language. Don’t make assumptions – ask, clarify!

Leaders who adopt coaching methods, or who might be familiar with frameworks such as the NLP meta-model use this approach to really understand how people think, but it can also be used to manage how you think about people.

Get a challenger

The best leaders have the confidence to surround themselves with people who are different from them or who think differently from them.

Leaders or managers who don’t do this and who instead surround themselves with like-minded people will find that these people often have the same unconscious biases as they do – and they will then validate your biases about different people.

Effective leaders speak to different people, especially about people.

In summary, once we recognise that we’re looking for similarities, are inclined to go with our gut instincts, and view situations based on our past experiences, we can move towards becoming more aware of and open towards unbiased behaviour. Just remember the acronym, and continually challenge yourself. You’ll be a better leader for it.


Workshop InformationDue to the popularity of her corporate events, Julie is running a limited number of sessions open to the public. To learn how to manage smart people, lead with curiosity, and meet your goals in a hands-on, facilitated environment, attend one of Julie’s workshops.