rsz_dsc_0390_iván_melenchón_serrano_morguefileRegardless of how vigilant we are when making decisions, sometimes we allow known or indiscernible biases to penetrate our process, coloring them with assumptions, misinterpretations, and opinions. As a leader, you are involved with making decisions about persons that can permanently impact their lives so with great responsibility comes the need to demonstrate objectivity and fairness.

There are a number of ways that bias can infiltrate our decision making processes, restricting the growth of some, or pushing others beyond their level of competence.

Here are a few ways leaders knowingly or unwittingly project their biases:

  1. When your contribution is not valued by powerful stakeholders in your organization, their view of you can become crystal clear when you decide to shop for another job or apply for a promotion. What can happen is your potential employer / supervisor contacts your current or last employer who is less than complimentary. Eventually, you may end up settling for less than you think you deserve because you now have to rebuild your brand.
  2. Another example of bias projection occurs when managers rate employees for the most recent period of their performance, there are some raters who are not as disciplined as they should be about collecting the facts. Sadly, because these managers are working from memory which can be governed by rater bias they may allow the most recent negative or positive experience with the employee to carry disproportionate weight in the rating process. This approach inappropriately distorts the true value of the employee’s contribution for the entire year.
  3. Let’s take a look at the decision making process when a promotion is being considered. In the meeting, a name comes up, then a panel member states that an employee made an error 10 years ago that caused the company a significant a loss. This information was mentioned by this panelist despite the facts that the employee is a consistently strong performer who never made the error again. If this statement remains unchallenged, the potential cost of vetoing the opportunity for the employee is that he may migrate to another company because his career is being stagnated by institutional unforgiveness.
  4. Bias can happen when an employee expresses a point of view that contradicts the opinion of their leaders. This is because the employee making the statement may be perceived as a threat because she is not compliant with cultural norms and hard to control. In healthy environments this same behavior, when respectfully done, can be viewed as advantageous, creative or insightful and can create a positive bias.
  5. There are times when a bias is positive to the point of exaggerating the truth.  In cases like these, the employee or manager benefiting from the positive bias may only have high value in their current work environment because of a culture that rewards pretentiousness or loyalty. When this type of employee migrates to another company or department, they may have great difficulty maintaining their high performing status.

When employees realize their careers are being stifled by bias, they may become conservative, despondent or driven to find a new position. Their decision depends on if they are intrinsically motivated, or if they are inclined to wait until the organization sees their value and rewards them.

Neutralizing the Effect of Bias

If biased decision making is a cultural norm within your organization, it will take time to modify this.  Here are a few tips to help you to view persons through an objective lens.

  1. Become aware of your biases and the emotions they generate, then suspend them. The next step is to connect your thoughts and emotions so you can choose a different decision making path.
  2. Use your ability to detect your own biases to identify the biases in others and your propensity to take sides in an opinionated, seemingly factual argument.
  3. Ask yourself questions to determine if your biases are coming through. What are my assumptions here? What are the pros and cons of alternative actions?  What are we really trying to achieve?  Are we being fair? These types of questions can all help neutralize the effects of bias.
  4. Create an engagement plan designed to build morale and talent development plans to develop your best people. Putting a proven framework in place can help to overcome the unperceived biases that surreptitiously infiltrate decision-making conversations.
  5. Include persons in decision making who naturally tend to hold the group accountable to fair discussion.  While accountability may not be warm and fuzzy, it can improve the quality of decisions.

Bias is a significant blind spot in organizations because it is difficult to detect, especially in circumstances where it morphs into group think.  When the blind spot causes career stagnation, above average employees can be lost. It is incredible to watch how persons who have had negative biases held against them for years in one company, can transform their performance within another organization and flourish.

Manage Your Value

As I already mentioned, it is not easy to uncover your true biases in some work environments because coworkers can be hesitant or unable to give you honest feedback. Always view yourself as empowered despite the prevailing biases that may affect your career presently. You do have the power to take deliberate action to reinvent yourself.  The question is, will you allow fear to get in the way or will you allow optimism to cause you to make the hard decisions you need to make so you can thrive.

Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner.  If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her free newsletter at or you can listen to her weekly podcast at Evolve Podcast.