Real Leaders

Which of These Three Would You Trust the Least?

I am very interested in how to improve human judgment. All leadership success, and yes, life success depends on it.

Harvard-based researchers have spent years proving that virtually all of us are irrationally biased.  We all have opinions that are not based on facts or direct experience but rather emotional 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.  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.

For instance as you consider the 3 photos at the top of this article, who might you want to avoid walking by on deserted street at midnight? If you are like most people in the Harvard research you would scamper away from the man in the hoodie. That would be foolish as the man in the sweatshirt is the famous great guy basketball star Kevin Durant who is known for his charity and loving kindness. The figure in the burka is not a terrorist but a British Muslim nurse.

And the handsome man in the suit is none other than Ted Bundy who raped and murdered 30 women. Trusting Bundy based on his looks and charm was tragically fatal for those who relied on their visual bias.

Simply put, prejudice limits our capacity to make smart decisions or see deeper truths. Yet these thinking shortcuts are difficult to tame.  Humans 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 that people are a lot like us we tend to trust them. When we worry about people who do not seem to be like us with regards to how they look, what they like to eat, how they like to live, or to 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.

Although we reflexively have automatic preferences toward people who look like us, act like us, and seem to believe what we believe–that thinking is proving the be one of the most destructive challenges of our time.

Consider this. Never before in history have human beings been exposed to so many other human beings who are not like us. In 1950 2.5 billion people populated our planet. Today nearly 7.5 billion people fill the planet. And the variety of beliefs and cultures is astonishing.  This requires a new way of thinking. It requires open minds rather than defensive ones. Collaboration rather than competition. Innovation rather stagnation. Sustainability rather than exploitation.  

As many of you know, I constantly seek to surface unconscious bias that is so pervasive in our workplaces as I help women advance in leadership.  Nearly all organizations are built on an authoritarian model that unconsciously favors “strong-man” behavior. Most men have a strong belief that typical male behaviors of assertiveness and taking control are ideal leadership behaviors 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 with this bias 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.

What is true is that while hard power style seems to create efficiency it quashes innovation.  Hard power rewards obedience and group compliance.

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.  That’s why the cognitive diversity that comes from seeking the ideas of people not like us is such a powerful driver of innovation, and value creation.

Our unconscious bias is psychological blindness. We literally don’t see opportunity when we are either judgmental or fearful.

The question I ask male executives when I am trying to get them to see the value that women who lead like women bring is “What might you be blind to?”

The evidence that organizations are more successful when at least 30% of senior leaders are female is overwhelming. One big reason is that women are more socially intelligent. This advantage drives them to be more inclusive and open to new or different ideas. It’s not that women are less biased to begin with. The edge they have is that they are less reactive, less impulsive and more empathetic. This helps them to stop and think before they dismiss the ideas, needs or values of  people different from them.

The bottom line:

We live in a complex, diverse world that our brains and emotions seek to simplify by separating people into groups of people like us and not like us.
Diversity challenges our biases that hard power leaders are unlikely to value.
Women have gender brain and social strengths that make them better suited to harvest the value of cognitive diversity through practical innovations.

However, the bias against women advancing to leadership in organizations inhibits women from using their strengths.

Leaders can dramatically increase the group intelligence of their senior leadership and organizational performance by making sure qualified women make up at least 30% of their C-level, VP’s and senior directors.

If your organization does not look like this, ask the most senior male leader you can connect with to read this and ask him to suspend his bias and consider the positive implications of it’s factual truth.


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