Effective leadership: “If you’ve got a brain, you’ve got a bias.”

In the Dutch BNR Podcast ‘Werkverkenners’, which roughly translates to ‘Work Explorers’, host Rens de Jong finds answers to his and your work-related questions. He invited our VP Customized Anke Baak to discuss what is called the ‘blind spot’ our subconscious creates upon a first impression of someone or something. Oftentimes, this extremely fast information processing is helpful: it saves us a lot of time. However, the habit of generalizing can also keep us from seeing someone’s full potential. Hence, working on your blind spot, or biases, is crucial in effective leadership.

Rens wonders how reliable our first impressions are, since these are produced in seconds. Anke mentions the importance of such processes in prehistory: to survive, we needed to make assumptions and think fast. But today, jumping to conclusions can work against you. Especially as a manager, it’s important to remain open to information –preferably facts – which might cause you to reject your initial assumptions, Anke says.

Where does our blind spot come from?

Unfortunately, changing your biases is easier said than done. Anke: “If you’ve got a brain, you’ve got a bias.” She describes three processes in our brain which contribute to the formation of biases.

  • Generalizing: we draw general conclusions from particular situations or people.
  • Selective perception: we tend to only register information which matches our existing frame of reference. Herein we can distinct two opposite effects. The ‘halo effect’ occurs when our previous positive evaluation of someone or something influences our opinion in other areas. The opposite effect, the ‘horn effect’, negatively influences our opinions based on an unfavorable bias.
  • Warmth and competence model: we have a tendency to attribute competence to people we feel more connected to, who resemble ourselves.

As an expert on the subconscious brain, Genieke Hertoghs explains that our subconscious works a thousand times faster than our conscious brain. This hands the subconscious a great deal of conviction. Genieke elaborates: “The goal of our subconscious is to keep our ego intact, to protect it. When someone says certain things which go against your point of view, this person receives a negative point in our subconscious brain. And when this ‘minus one’ is registered, it’s hard to change. After all, the subconscious makes sure our existing opinions remain.” This is a shame, since we might miss interesting perspectives, stories and information from people who have different ideas than we do, Rens responds. Anke agrees: “In today’s tight labor market, organizations can’t afford to lose valuable employees because of the consequences of insufficient leadership. This causes employees to not feel seen or heard. Moreover, they can’t miss out on the talent and eye-opening potential which would be available in diverse teams. Inclusive leadership is crucial to reach an organization’s full potential.”

“Be curious about facts which might change your bias.”

“But how do we get rid of these processes and biases?”, Rens asks. Anke stresses the importance of determination: if there’s a necessity, it’s possible to reduce such generalizing thinking. It’s crucial to be curious, Anke says. “We need to be interested in the facts which might change our bias. Because if we’re not curious about and open to such information, we will simply dismiss information that is not congruent with our bias as a stroke of luck or coincidence.”

Put your bias to the test

It’s quite clear that diversity is important, but raises challenges because of the familiar blind spot. How can we work on putting our default mode of bias on stand-by? Genieke advices to stay on top of your thoughts. Step one is to acknowledge you’re not understanding someone, as soon as you realize this. More importantly, aim to recognize their potential. “Put this person on a pedestal for once, ask questions and discover more about his or her perspective. Find the point where this person is right and you are wrong,” she elaborates. Digging through what you might feel is “garbage” information at first, is called ‘pulling’.

This is related to the concept of the ‘pyramid of perception’. This implies that once the other feels heard and seen, you will climb the ladder of their perception. The higher you climb, the higher the other’s willingness to change their perception of you. Once this is achieved, you can cooperate in achieving your goals together, as a manager and an employee. The other side of the coin would be achieved by ‘pushing’, which would be to blindly follow your subconscious into protecting your ego. In this case, you feel the need to convince the other and by doing so, you attract resistance and get awarded with a low position on the perspective pyramid. This needs to be avoided. Therefore, Genieke stresses the importance of digging towards the underlying food for thought: “Eventually, you will run into something valuable, something that makes you think: ‘you’re right, you have a point’. That’s where you gain profit.”

Creating dialogue for sustainable organizational and personal change

Rens understands the importance of being aware of your blind spot. But how can we achieve this in an entire company culture? He fears that the digging goes wrong, that his bias takes over and conflicts arise. Anke explains the importance when working on a company’s culture of investing in the dialogue: “During Relevance’s companywide learning programs, groups of employees are all part of the same trainings and discussions. Together, we open the dialogue about selective perception and its consequences. This creates safe and open communication. Another helpful aspect is working with case studies to reflect on what goes well and which aspects could use improvement. With multiple sessions and interventions, people really get to practice and put their acquired knowledge to use. That’s when they realize: half of my thinking is based on prejudices.”

That’s an interesting point: what if you’re the blind spot? What can be done when you feel your manager doesn’t see your potential? Anke believes the most important thing is to not start believing this is true. Because once you feel your manager doesn’t believe in you, you become self-conscious, which affects your performance negatively. “It all starts with believing in yourself,” she says. “Keep your back straight and prove your manager wrong with facts. Think of the warmth and competence model: making sure to connect with your manager; If someone likes you, it helps.”

“Discover what drives their perspective.”

Genieke offers another exercise: writing down what you know about your manager. Forgo the facts, but try to focus on how this person views the world, what drives them, which themes and why? Oftentimes, your notebook remains (almost) empty. The conclusion being you actually don’t know that much about your superior. “If you want to climb on their perception ladder, you need to discover what drives their perspective,” she adds. In short: asking questions while letting go of your bias will help you gain the desired plus points in their subconscious. Consequentially, they will view you differently and take your ideas more seriously.

“In conclusion, we all have a bias,” Rens says. Without confronting it, you might be wasting your team’s potential. People who don’t feel heard and seen, are less likely to make the best effort. By climbing on the perception pyramid, manager and employee share a better understanding and therefore better cooperation. Creating an open dialogue is a great way to start this process and create sustainable change in company culture. Good luck!

Are you interested in uncovering your own and your organization’s blind spot? Contact us for more information!