I just got a whole lot smarter by understanding more about what makes me dumb. I just got back from a three-hour workshop presented by Mahzarin Banaji, who is an award-winning Harvard professor specializing in how our brain biases secretly control our thinking. Her book is called Blind Spot, Hidden Biases of Good People.

We all have opinions that are not based on facts or direct experience but rather on thinking shortcuts.

She makes the case that the smartest thing each one of us can do is face the fact that we are all irrationally biased. We all have opinions that are not based on facts or direct experience but rather on thinking shortcuts. You see thinking takes a lot of energy and discipline but our brains are built for efficiency so it is always designing shortcuts. The name of these mental-shortcuts is stereotypes.

When we hold tight to stereotypes they become prejudices.

When we hold tight to stereotypes they become prejudices. Once we have a prejudice we’re constantly selecting evidence to support our prejudice so we don’t have to go to the effort of opening our minds to new data or considering that in this specific case, what is usually true is not true.

So when we see people that are a lot like us we tend to trust them.

These thinking shortcuts of stereotyping and prejudice are difficult to tame. We have spent thousands of years finding security believing that our tribe offers protection from other tribes who want to kill us and take our stuff. So when we see people that are a lot like us we tend to trust them. When we worry about people who do not seem to be a lot alike us as to how they look, what they like to eat, how they like to live, or appear to have different standards and values, we seek to protect ourselves. This is the natural state of human emotions…and it is increasingly dysfunctional. Never before in history have human beings been exposed to so many other human beings who are not like us. I grew up on a ranch near a small-town populated by Leave it to Beaver families.

Yet, today my grandchildren attend schools with multi-ethnic students, some who have come from parts of the world that I have had no desire to visit. I did not know that homosexuality existed in human beings until I was 16. I did not have any gay friends until I was in my 50s. I did not have a serious understanding of non-Christian religious beliefs until I was in my 40s. I think my mind has been more challenged in the last 15 years of my life than in the previous 50.

And that is simply awesome because it forces me to literally… stop and think. Professor Banaji points out that we live in an age where political correctness has made explicit forms of bias relatively rare. We don’t openly talk about feelings of racism, or why we have a hard time believing that women would be successful CEOs or Presidents. But her research conclusively points out that our implicit biases and prejudices are pervasive. We simply have automatic preferences toward people who look like us, act like us, and seem to believe what we believe.

We simply have automatic preferences toward people who look like us, act like us, and seem to believe what we believe.

As many of you know I constantly deal with unconscious bias as I help women advance in leadership. Most men have a strong belief that typical male behaviors of assertiveness and taking control is ideal leadership behavior because that’s what they are biased to believe from working in business structures that favor those behaviors. So they tend to give women who act in these “male” ways more leadership opportunities. The problem is our research (Apple to Zappos) clearly indicates that in today’s radically competitive business environment, old-school, stereotypical male leadership is more likely to fail than succeed. And yet when women who use male leadership strategies fail, the secret opinion of many males is that the core cause of failure is that women are not “strong enough” to be effective…as if the male style of hard power causes effectiveness.

What is true is that hard power style seems to create efficiency and quash innovation.

What is true is that hard power style seems to create efficiency and quash innovation. The new book, Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader is about the transformation of Steve Jobs and shows that his later success was not driven by his previous hard power craziness, but rather his evolution to an empowering collaborator…which are more typically female traits. What impacted Jobs to overcome his previous blind spot is the humility that comes from failure and the SMART Power modeling of Pixar CEO Ed Catmull.

Our own growth comes from opening our minds to new possibilities.

Our own growth comes from opening our minds to new possibilities. Economists have discovered that opportunity is usually a function of seeing what was previously unseen but is right in front of us. Our unconscious bias is psychological blindness. We literally don’t see opportunity when we are either judgmental or fearful. The only solution to overcoming biases is to become more aware of what they are. When you feel yourself making snap judgments ask yourself… “What if the opposite could also be true?” The question I came away with from Dr. Banaji session is “What am I blind to?”