You’re a good leader. You work hard, care deeply and want your people to succeed. You take part in trainings and programs to elevate your skills and the culture you lead. You read columns like this to pick up management tips. And you don’t stop reading when you get to the uncomfortable message of this one: Despite your best efforts, you have some biases and blind spots.
We all do. But rather than get defensive when the subject comes up, you get curious.
So what are these biases and blind spots and how do they sneak into your everyday decision-making?
7 common biases and blind spots
Here’s a list of some perfectly common statements and thoughts of managers. As positive as they sound, they may carry some downsides that might not be apparent to you.
1 I have high standards. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations. How you measure and share them is where biases can lurk. You might use yourself as the measuring stick for quality. If you never turned down overtime because you thought that was the mark of a good employee, you may presume anyone who declines it is underperforming. When you create job descriptions, you may automatically presume a college degree is an absolute must, especially if you worked hard to get yours. But today, many organizations are rethinking that standard.[a] Are you vigilant about a bias-free definition of quality?
2 I have a commitment to consistency. No one likes to work for unpredictable managers whose values shift with the wind. People should be able to anticipate what your opinions and preferences might be, based on your track record. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change when presented with new information. Let’s say you’ve said for years that you would never rehire someone who left the organization to work for a competitor. Or that remote work leads to slacking off. Or that you expect people who want promotions to come and pitch for them. But over time, you’ve come to see that those hard-and-fast pronouncements may be causing you to lose some good people or opportunities. There’s no shame in letting people know you’ve rethought a past position. Just make certain you tell them why.
3 I listen before making decisions. Good for you! Getting input from stakeholders helps us make better decisions. But when you do, keep track of the information you receive, from whom and when. That can protect you from falling prey to anchoring bias or recency effect.[b] That’s the tendency to put greater weight on either the first info that makes an impression on you or the last thing you heard and recall before deciding. Understandably, people who work for bosses with these biases are likely to be frustrated and to waste time figuring out how to time their discussions with their bosses to avoid an unfavorable, bias-influenced decision.
4 I worked my way up. Your staff may enjoy knowing that you understand their jobs because you’ve walked in their shoes. But there are potential challenges. First, you can drift toward the appearance ― or the reality ― of favoring people in your old role. Do they get more attention or resources? If so, do you explain why, so people don’t assume bias? The second problematic behavior is micromanagement. You know an area so well that you keep rolling up your sleeves to “help” ― when it isn’t necessary or appreciated.
5 I created that project. It’s only natural to be invested in systems, processes, projects or products we created. The downside of that is letting go of those creations when it’s time to change. Make certain you aren’t hanging on out of a sense of ownership. And then there’s a related bias: not-invented-here syndrome.[c] It’s the tendency to discount or reject ideas that don’t emanate from us or our teams. There’s nothing wrong with challenging new ideas to make sure they’ll work; just don’t shut the door because they come from outsiders.
6 I want people who are a good fit for our culture. We want every hire to be a great fit. But research says we misconstrue being like me with cultural fit. As one researcher puts it, when leaders say someone clicked or had chemistry with them, they often mean they shared a similar background.[d] They went to the same schools, like the same sports, have similar hobbies or tastes in music. It can lead to the exclusion of many worthwhile people who don’t remind us ― of us. It can also lead to biases about what “professionalism” looks and sounds like, as evidenced by disturbing research that reveals bias against Black women who wear their hair in natural styles.[e] Be alert to how you define “culture fit” to ensure it is free of affinity bias ― the attraction to people who are most like us.[f]
7 I hired or I coached that person. Managers know that a big part of their reputation is based on the quality of the people they hire, coach or mentor. Those folks are an extension of the leader’s vision and values. That’s a good thing. The downside: Managers must be careful to evaluate equitably, treating those they’ve hired the same as those they’ve inherited. When you’ve recruited or coached someone, you may have had a conversation or given advice that causes you to view their subsequent actions in a more favorable light. Watch yourself ― because I can guarantee your team watches for signs that you treat your people differently.
Continuous learning is key to getting it right
As I said from the start, you’re a good leader. You’re not frustrated or intimidated by this list. You recognize that even good intentions can have unintended consequences ― and you want to get things right.
And because of that, you have a worthy bias ― for learning.
[a] Milligan, S., Camera, L., “Ditch the degree? Many employers are just fine with that,” usnews.com, Feb. 3, 2023.
[b] See definitions at dictionary.apa.org
[c] Evans, N.D., “3 tips for combatting not-invented-here syndrome,” cio.com, Sept. 14, 2021.
[d] Stone, E. (based on insights from Rivera, L.), “Stop hiring for ‘cultural fit,’” insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu, Aug. 4, 2020.
[e] “Research suggests bias against natural hair limits job opportunities for Black women,” fuqua.duke.edu, Aug. 12, 2020.
[f] Tulshyan, R., “How to reduce personal bias when hiring,” hbr.org, June 28, 2019.