Unconscious Bias and Leadership

12th May 2015

Unconscious Bias affects every area of our lives, including which political leaders we vote for. With the UK General Election fresh on our minds, we ask whether our unconscious biases affected the results of the General Election?

Let’s start off by explaining Unconscious Bias itself. Everyone likes to think he or she is open-minded and objective, but research has shown that the beliefs and values gained from family, culture and a lifetime of experiences heavily influence how we view and evaluate both ourselves and others.

These thought patterns, assumptions and interpretations or biases we have built up over time help us to process information quickly and efficiently. But as Dan Robertson points out in our recent interview with him, this creates several challenges:

‘The obvious problem is that we start to make positive or negative views of others. If someone looks and sounds like me and if we have a similar background, I am much more likely to give a positive attribution to them. If someone is different, I’ll be more likely to give them a negative attribution.’

This means that unconsciously we tend to like people who look like us, think like us and come from backgrounds similar to ours. Hence the proliferation of middle class white men and women who have led the main UK political parties for the past few decades.

What makes us choose leaders?

From a survival standpoint, bias is a positive and necessary trait. In politics, however, bias can be costly. It can cause us to vote in a way that is not best for us.

We focus on all the wrong things, like a candidate’s charm, their stellar CV or their credentials before they became a politician. None of this has any bearing on leadership potential. How many people didn’t vote for Ed Miliband because of his seeming lack of charisma?

Despite claims to the contrary, even a political candidate’s past results have little bearing on whether the promoted individual will succeed once promoted (think Nick Clegg).

At best, a politician’s track record tells only half of the story. In a new position, the MP will have to face new obstacles, deal with a new team, manage more people, introduce new policies and do it all without a clear road map.

What is at play when people go out to vote?

International research shows that diverse teams outperform groups of the best individuals at solving problems. Yet research in neurobiology and psychology shows that similarity is easier for our brains to deal with, while difference is harder and therefore more uncomfortable.

This explains why we gravitate towards voting for people like us and find it easier to make connections with those from similar backgrounds and with similar personalities.

One of the risks this creates is that we continue to vote for people in our own image , thereby perpetuating a situation in which diversity is limited. Our unconscious biases could have played a favourable part in Nicola Sturgeon’s success in Scotland, but may well have gone against Ed Miliband and the Labour party.

How does unconscious bias affect women in leadership?

With relatively few women in top political roles, women’s unconscious beliefs about career advancement could be holding them back from reaching the top.

Unconscious bias comes in many forms, from assuming you need to take on more masculine characteristics to succeed (think Margaret Thatcher), to doubting your abilities and strengths.

Joan Williams of the Center for Worklife Law said that women leaders have a tightrope to walk. Take on the attributes of a man and be disliked by all. Stick to being a woman and risk a lack of promotion, visibility and reward.

Christine Lagarde, the first female leader of the IMF, agrees:

‘I’m the single voice constantly in a room full of men, it’s only going to carry the organisation so far. Where I think it really makes a difference is when I can endorse the middle management, or upper-middle management and make them generally in the minority make them comfortable, confident, prepared to shake their views.’

In addition, the recruitment selection for leadership positions is often based upon the attributes typically associated with male traits: assertion, aggression. To achieve diversity in politics, parties must invest in their female talent and nurture them through the party ranks.

As David Cameron announces his new cabinet and the Labour and Lib Dems go out to vote for a new leader, will those involved in choosing our country’s new leaders promote diversity in government or will their unconscious biases get the better of them?

Marshall offer a range of courses on Unconscious Bias and other management training. View our Unconscious Bias training products or get in touch to discuss how we can help create a bespoke Unconscious Bias training course for your organisation.

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