Real Leaders

Why You’re Not Aware of How Your Bias Holds You Back

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

“How often have you had an exceptional leader over the course of your career?”

The most common answer to that question is 10% of the time. Some people say 5%. No one has ever said over 20%. This means if you have had 10 bosses only one was exceptionally competent. This response is completely consistent with large-scale leadership research that objectively confirms that no more than 10% of bosses are exceptionally competent.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose that all the bosses in your group of 10 were men. One was great, three were bad, and six were average. (That would be consistent with leadership research.) As your career moves on imagine that you had three additional bosses, all of them women. None of them were particularly exceptional.  One was even incompetent. Then you were asked if you agree with this statement:

“On the whole men make better business executives than women do.”

What do you think?  Well, nearly 70% of women and over 80% of men agree with that statement. Yet, based on objective scientific research they are wrong. Validated research of nearly 50,000 business leaders reveals that women are generally more effective than men at the same leadership level. I will present more detail on that leadership research in a minute. But first I want you to consider why the vast majority of respondents to that question in the World Value Survey wrongly believe that men are more effective business leaders than women.

Our inner misperception of male leadership superiority is fundamentally caused by not having enough female bosses to fairly judge their abilities. It’s called ‘small sample size error.’ It works like this.  If you were to flip a coin 1,000 times you would very likely come up with the result of 500 heads and 500 tails. You would correctly conclude that every time you flip a coin the odds are 50-50 for either heads or tails. However if you only flip the coin five times and three of the flips came up heads you might conclude that heads is your “lucky” side because 60% of the time heads comes up for you. The problem of course is that when you only flip the coin five times one side is going to come up three times. It is also much more possible for one side to come up four times or 80% of the time with five coin flips than heads coming up 800 times (80%) with a thousand coin flips.

When I give a speech presenting the scientific evidence that, in general, women are actually better leaders than men I face a lot of skepticism. That’s because it’s far more likely for members of the audience of either gender to have had an exceptional male leader then an exceptional female leader . . . simply because they’ve had more male leaders. Duh!

Until recently most economists assumed educated people have ‘good judgment.’ They believed smart people to be highly rational. They thought people examine data dispassionately and make fair-minded decisions unemotionally. But people don’t do that.  And it doesn’t matter their education level. In a new best-selling book, The Undoing Project author Michael Lewis tells the story of how Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman discovered that virtually all of us are constantly making judgments about ourselves and others based on biases and flimsy beliefs than confirm our opinions despite the fact they are factually incorrect. When we see other people acting this way we consider them unreasonable, prejudiced and ignorant. The problem is we don’t see ourselves this way despite the fact all of us are unreasonable, prejudiced and ignorant. This is a huge problem because it affects the quality of our life, our life choices and the nature of our society.

Let me give you an example from my world. I am increasingly asked to conduct workshops addressing workplace bias.  When I talk to CEOs about the business impact of devaluing women through the invisible bias that permeates their corporate cultures they simply don’t believe it. Virtually every CEO I talk to is under the illusion that their workplace is a meritocracy and the good work speaks for itself. But it’s not true. It’s not true because of workplace bias.  So I have to conduct focus groups and administer surveys to produce data to open their minds to the fact that their culture undermines and disengages women. Even with data it usually takes a jackhammer to crack the concrete that encases most executive’s thinking.

That’s OK, I expect male baby-boomer executives to be biased. But what’s even more frustrating is that so many women suffer from self-bias. They believe that men are better leaders.  Even successful women swim in the mental soup of the imposter syndrome, fearful that their inadequacies will be discovered and that they will have to take responsibility for some public failure. The impact of self-bias leads women to defer to men simply because they’re men.  After all, if you assume that men are better leaders than women you are also likely to assume they know something you don’t. So you become compliant which reinforces your view that you are a better supporter than a leader. You’re compliant behavior reinforces the primal bias held by many men that women are here to help them not to lead them.

A Few Facts:

The Zenger Folkman company has been gathering 360° leadership effectiveness data for over 30 years. They have validated their research methodology that connects leaders’ behaviors to business results. In 2014 they started to examine their data using a gender screen that enables them to compare men and women. They found that, generally, women are better than men at these high impact leadership skills:

  • Taking initiative
  • Driving for results
  • Seeking feedback to develop themselves
  • Developing others
  • Inspiring others
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Connecting the big picture to individual jobs

(The one thing men excel at over women is communicating powerfully and prolifically . . . of course they do.)
Moreover, Zenger- Folkman’s research confirms that women are better leaders across all job functions from general management to operations to finance to marketing to R&D: everything . . . except building maintenance.


In pure economic terms women CEOs also outperform male CEOs. According to Fortune magazine’s research on the performance of the 1,000 largest companies, the 51 females that lead enterprises produce 37% more profit on average than the 941 Male CEOs.

And yet, when you look at those pictures of Jack Welch and Steve Jobs it is still hard for most women to believe they are the equal of male business executives let alone even better.

Here’s why:

Confirmation bias. For the nearly 5,000 years of recorded history what’s been recorded are the exploits of male leaders. So aggressive, decisive, competitive behavior is a deeply ingrained bias that is equated with how outstanding leaders behave. Once that is our hypothesis we are constantly on the lookout for confirming evidence. Even more damaging is that we ignore or overlook any contrary evidence. If we assume that men are better leaders we simply look for and remember anecdotal evidence or experiences that support our prejudice. Even worse if we see a woman leader struggling we discount the scientific truth that in general women are better leaders.

Attribution error. Most people I talk to attribute Steve Jobs’ leadership success to his uncompromising arrogance. This is false. His arrogance forced the Apple, Inc. of the 1980s to create the Lisa, which was a complete product failure. It also led him to getting fired. According to current Apple executives, his success the second time around was due to his faithful collaboration with a leadership team of six executives with complementary skills. Jobs suffered 10 years of failure after being fired which added just enough humility to him to become great. Not much has been written about Steve Jobs’ leadership transformation because it doesn’t conform to our irrational belief that great leaders kick ass and take names. This thinking fallacy is a big problem for women since most women do not succeed by being overbearing, insistent and verbally aggressive.

Unscientific conclusions. This refers to the small sample size problem. Most people trust their prejudice instead of data. We take a selective look at our own experience and if we don’t find an outstanding women leader we look at the pictures of Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Marilyn Monroe and mistakenly conclude that those stereotypes accurately represent how men and women actually excel.

The Bottom Line:

Bias against women in leadership is real. The research evidence is overwhelming that women have to be twice as competent for twice as long to even have a chance at equal opportunities.  Today’s work cultures do not work for women. That is a big, big problem because women bring distinct leadership advantages to all organizations that create genuine value for customers, employees and society that we desperately need.

So, if you’re a man who has not worked for or with an exceptional woman leader, keep an open mind . . . you have not worked with enough of them.

If you’re a woman, be a leader, have a vision for yourself and your work. Act in confidence.  The world needs the difference you make.


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