6 dangerous biases of bosses

Integrity is the cornerstone of leadership.  For managers, intelligence — both cognitive and emotional — is important. But research says that employees rate trustworthiness as more important than competence in their managers.

I think that’s because so many managers lead people who are smarter than they are. The staff doesn’t expect the boss to be a genius; they want a supervisor they can trust.

Trust is confidence, in the face of risk, that another person will act with integrity. Tell the truth. Share credit. Take blame. Make decisions based on values. Reject prejudice.

We earn the trust of our team over time. But it takes vigilance to maintain it, even if we have the best of intentions. That’s because we tend to overestimate our own abilities and think we’re more reliable or principled than we really are.

We have blind spots and biases that can erode trust. We often discover that the hard way, through an obvious mistake or from candid feedback about our shortcomings.

To help ensure your feedback is positive, and your mistakes are minimized, here’s some help — Six dangerous biases of bosses, and how they appear in the workplace:

1. “I like you. You remind me of myself.”

This bias is so common that social scientists have a name for it: Similarity Attraction Effect. It leads us to be more approving, more empathetic — and more likely to hire and promote people like us.

It leads us to measure the behavior of others by the yardstick of what we ourselves would do. We see ourselves as the norm to which others should conform. Think about how limiting that can be and how damaging to a team’s potential for the creativity and innovation that come from diverse perspectives, personalities and experiences.

This bias is also cited as a key reason for continued pay and promotion disparities faced by women and minorities in the workplace. It’s not overt, old-fashioned “You Need Not Apply” kind of prejudice. It’s discomfort with and often misjudgment of others, the kind we examined in depth at a recent forum at the National Press Club. (Here’s video of the event.)

It’s not easy to hear that we all pack a little prejudice deep into our decision-making about others, but it’s a stepping stone to solutions.

2. “I hired you.”

When we bring a person onto our team, we’re telling the world, “I believe in this person.”  Since our credibility is on the line in a hire, we root for the best outcome and may be more inclined to give second chances. Even if we believe we wouldn’t unfairly favor our hires, it’s important to monitor our interactions with the rest of our staff, to make certain they see and feel that we’re equally invested in their success. We need to be clear about standards and excel at giving feedback to all, so when any employee does well, it’s clearly about performance, not preference.

This is especially important in an organization undergoing significant change. New hires may bring new skills and can be seen as allies or competitors to the current staff, depending on the leader’s approach.

I learned that lesson when my newsroom was going through a large expansion. We had switched network affiliations and doubled the hours of news we produced. I was determined to convince our strong staff that the influx of new teammates would meet their standards, so I involved them in the vetting process. One day, after a respected reporter looked over the impressive resume of a potential hire, I asked, “Is she good enough for our newsroom?”  He half-smiled and said, “I’m worried. She’s TOO good!”

It was his friendly way of reminding me that while I assumed he knew how much I respected folks like him, even top performers need to hear it loud and clear. I had made the mistake of just asking them to bless the newbies.

3. “I coached you.”

When we decide to help someone improve, we can fall victim to what I call “the coach’s bias.”  Coaches work closely with employees to identify things they should work on and how — and that very focus causes us to see the glass half full instead of half empty.  Coaches note small improvements and point them out, to encourage people to keep on track and try harder.

Meanwhile, others are more likely to see the objective and bigger picture of the work still to be done and the performance gaps unfilled.

Again, learn from my mistakes. I hired a reporter who had no TV experience, but a solid track record for getting good stories. Because he was nervous on-air and it showed, I worked with him as a coach. He was getting incrementally better, so I gave him a spot on our election night coverage. As he sweated — and we squirmed — through his not-great live shots, the producer and I kept saying, “Well, he’s better than he was. He’s getting there…”

The next morning, we reviewed of our coverage with our general manager, who saw things without the “coach’s bias” — only the vantage point of a viewer. He was blunt. He told us the reporter had no business being on the air in that high-pressure, totally ad-lib situation.

He was right. Bias had clouded my judgment. I did a disservice to the audience and to the reporter by seeing only his baby steps toward improvement. I kept working with him, though, far more direct about his need to make election night just a bad memory.  Eventually, he turned out fine — and I learned a lesson about bias.

4. “I put a stake in the ground.”

When we make a public statement, it’s hard to reverse course. We can dig in to that decision and convince ourselves we’re right, when what we’re really doing is saving face. That’s what makes change so hard in organizations, as people confuse positions with principles.

Here’s what I mean. You may have heard a manager say things like this:

  • I won’t hire someone with less than 3 years’ experience.
  • I won’t promote someone who doesn’t come in and pitch hard for the job.
  • I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to do.

Managers hang their hats on such ideas, which may have worked for them in some way at some time. Meanwhile, others may see the downside to those positions much more clearly than the boss. The organization may miss out on a brilliant young candidate, or a chance to diversify the team, or lose an up-and-coming employee who feels unappreciated. Those who see those downsides are in a tough spot. It’s not always easy to speak truth to power, especially when the Powerful One thinks righteousness demands rigidity.

That’s why managers should think carefully before declaring “always/never” manifestos, and be open to the possibility that their past positions can blind them to both consequences and possibilities. When a person of integrity says, “I’ve rethought this” or better yet, “I was wrong,” it can build credibility. (Just don’t do it daily. That builds incredulity.)

5. “I used to do that job.”

It’s easy to have an affinity for work that was a big part of your career, especially if you were good at it. Your knowledge and fondness can lead you to pay greater attention to that area, to favor it in staffing, budgeting or equipment.  It can also make you be more critical of it and micromanage it.

I recall a newly appointed managing editor telling me he realized how often he gravitated toward the investigative team’s desks, where he used to work. He walked right past other employees, sending the message, “Here’s what’s important to me,” when all he was really doing was heading to a comfort zone.  When he understood the impact, he changed his habits.

Just know that those whose jobs you’ve never done are watching you, eager to see if you can overcome your bias of experience, and learn to see the world through their eyes. There’s nothing like a manager who demonstrates a genuine interest in learning what it takes to do a job successfully — and acts on it.

6. “I’m under pressure to deliver.”

We can talk ourselves into some bad decisions when we frame a situation as “strictly business.” It makes it too easy to exclude other important considerations.

The business ethics professors who wrote “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It” point out that humans approach decisions with two identities, their “want selves” (emotional, impulsive)  and their “should selves” (rational, thoughtful). We’d like to think we operate under our “should selves” as managers. But under workplace pressures, a phenomenon they call “ethical fading” may kick in when we’re being pressured for results:

Our visceral responses are so dominant at the time of the decision that they overshadow all other considerations. We want to help our company maintain its market share. We want to earn profits and bonuses. As a result, want wins and should loses. It is only later, behavioral ethics researchers argue, that we engage in any type of moral reasoning. The purpose of this moral reasoning is not to arrive at a decision — it is too late for that — but to justify the decision we’ve already made.

This doesn’t mean all managers chuck their moral compasses in service to the bottom line. It simply alerts us that it takes both awareness and courage to be the voice that raises issues of ethics, diversity, safety, quality, promise-keeping, compassion or community when others may want to narrow a conversation to short-term business objectives only.

It takes awareness and courage to combat any of these six dangerous biases. We can commit to being vigilant and more self-aware. We can ask for feedback from others and take it to heart. We can use our influence to help colleagues do the same.

It’s a challenge, but it comes with a payoff: a reputation as a trusted leader.

* * *

How should you respond if someone suggests you have a bias? I’ll share tips in this “What Great Bosses Know” companion podcast.

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