How Cognitive Bias gets in the way of your career aspirations

I’m speaking at a Women in Logistics event this week to launch a study which my company, The Forton Group, supports. The idea is to explore how we can help businesses make career transitions easier for women and minorities without having to be “Bolshie” in this traditionally male-dominated sector.

I love the word ‘Bolshie’. It’s got enough humour to neutralise that whole ‘bossy woman’ thing. Because that’s how people have responded in the past – particularly in male-dominated work environments – to intelligent and ambitious women and minorities.

I’ll be talking about subconscious bias – what this is – how we believe it gets in women’s way of stepping up. I’ll also be helping participants to identify signs of bias and what to do about it. I’m looking forward to hearing peoples’ stories and experiences; capturing ideas on what works and what gets in the way.

What’s the theory?

There are three ideas behind the study:

1.   It’s more important to have a behavioural or performance focus in the workplace and then weave in the diversity and inclusion agenda. This means recognising and valuing skills, contribution, outcomes an impacts, over and above our bias and judgements towards someone’s gender, race, religion or culture. The reason behind this is that, paradoxically, when we focus on peoples’ strengths and what they actually deliver, diversity and inclusion levels rise. When we focus on the D&I agenda it increases bias against those ideas.

2.   Bias is about ‘judgement and non-judgement’.  High performance should be about How people notice and judge people by their actions. Yet their personality or our perception of their attitude, beliefs or intentions get judged too. Being seen to be ‘Bolshie’ is simply someone’s judgement on another’s actions – the way they speak or their body language – not what they deliver.

3.   It’s vital to identify the signs of bias. Self-awareness is key; when we see how we are all impacted by conscious and unconscious bias and have tips and techniques for dealing with our biases, then things can change. Trying to change others is a fool’s errand. “Being the change” – as Gandhi said – is the first step.

So what is ‘bias’?

I’ve been reading articles about cognitive bias for years now. And following the Wikipedia article that tracked the increasing number of common biases. When it got to 72 types, I realised – as did many colleagues in the learning and development field – that a simpler approach to the topic was needed.

This is my definition:

“Bias is a quick response, mixed with judgement about a person. It’s caused by information overload and snap judgements. It is over-simplification, and making stuff up, about someone.”

It was great to find that others shared my desire for simplicity. I’m indebted to Buster Benson (https://medium.com/thinking-is-hard Twitter: @Buster) for sharing his ‘Cognitive Bias’ cheat sheet, which I’ve drawn on. Again, put simply, Buster puts cognitive bias into four quadrants which I summarise as:

  1. The desire to simplify
  2. The desire to make stuff up
  3. The desire to take snap judgements
  4. The feeling of information overload

We simplify because we’re in a hurry. We look for pattern matches. People who fit ‘our pattern’ are friends. Therefore anyone who doesn’t fit our pattern isn’t our friend. Therefore, they must be a threat.

Notice how the pattern match takes us almost instantly to snap judgements, and to making stuff up about someone. When we feel like our brains are in information overload, this is what happens

What works to neutralize bias?

Play a different inner game

Although I’m saying that, at work, we should be judged on our behaviours and performance – not our personality, gender, colour or culture – what needs to shift is on the inside. Fundamentally, we need to reduce brain overload. Seek clarity. Give ourselves enough time to make better decisions.

Here’s some tips – notice how –

  • You judge yourself or others
  • Self-judgement holds you back: fear of looking stupid, or standing out are common.
  • Self-judgement gets transferred to others. What you judge yourself for, you’ll judge others by.

One way to shift your thinking is to look for the positive behaviour. How can you support yourself? How can you support others?

Choose presence over absence. Fears, uncertainty, jealousy, anger are all absences that leave us feeling without control. They fill a dark vacuum where clarity and presence should be.

Three steps

Every-day feedback is invaluable. Not the end of the week. Or the six-monthly or annual appraisal. Every day you meet a colleague or member of the team; ask for, and offer, feedback. It won’t always be accepted, by the way…

At the Forton Group we teach a method of giving and receiving feedback in our classes that supports higher performance and delivery levels, and helps people feel supported; especially in those all-important appraisal conversations.

Other things we can do to support peoples’ self-esteem is to remind them (and ourselves) about their track record. Keep a note of your successes; sharpen up your CV to remind you of your achievements.

Coaching and mentoring are invaluable workplace tools for reducing bias and improving performance. They can be transformational in peoples’ lives too. I recently created the Coaching and the Leadership Routemap™, so that every organisation can benefit from a better coaching/mentoring programme. Find out more at www.thefortongroup.com

Next Steps

The ideas set out here are tentative theories. The findings from the Women in Logistics event will form part of our study – the next step of which is to undertake a wider online survey. Our purpose is to uncover ‘how to’ steps for others, and to make these easier for others to walk along. The bigger context is diversity and inclusion: gender issues specifically, yet we do expect to touch on issues like culture, race, sexuality and age too.

If you’re interested in taking part – contact me via LinkedIn or at helen.caton@thefortongroup.com

Coach training for experienced coaches: the Forton difference

If, like me, you’re an experienced coach working with executives and leaders in corporate settings, you may be wondering why you need to invest in specific leadership coaching training. Of course, you may be about to renew your credentials, which is a great reason to do this!

Here at The Forton Group, we provide a wide range of flexible ways of getting the CCEUs and supervision hours you require for ICF renewal.

But what’s different about leadership coaching, why should you add it to your kitbag and why The Forton Group? Continue reading

What can leaders learn from dogs barking at a postal carrier?

I had the great pleasure of running one of our Leadership Coaching Programs in Toronto last month.  Sunshine; great location; good company – what more could I want?

I was staying with our friends and colleagues, Cyndi and Ross, who have two delightful Golden Labradors. This has to be one of the friendliest breeds of dog. They love being around people, and are very enthusiastic and expressive. Continue reading

Influencing and networking – key skills for leaders

I met up with some old colleagues last week – people I worked with over 10 years ago, some of whom I haven’t seen for at least that long. We shared a few pints and it was great how easy it was to pick up friendships and conversations. I’ve had the pleasure in my life of working in some large and sociable organisations.  I’ve had the opportunity to make some great friends.  And even though they may not be bosom buddies, there’s something about the shared experience that makes it easy to reconnect. Continue reading

Our Man in Panama

I’ve just finished a week of working in Panama.  We’ve been running career development workshops for an international charity. It’s a fascinating country, whose recent history is dominated by the canal.  It’s a visionary project, still a vital lifeline for trade, operating 24 hours a day. The city is the headquarters for many charities.

I’d set off with a few pre-conceptions about what the people would be like.  They came from across South America, a continent I’ve never visited. I suspect that subconsciously, I was looking for proof to reinforce my stereotypes. I began to think about how often we do this, at many times in our life. Continue reading

Leadership and listening beyond the words

Last week, we launched our flagship leadership coach training product, Ignite, in Italy. I had the great pleasure of spending time with our partners in Rome.  They ran the course for a dozen leaders and coaches keen to learn our model.  My job was to listen, observe and support – and my biggest challenge was the listening.

I think it would be fair to say that learning new languages has never been one of my strengths – although I’m happy to be convinced this is merely a belief, and look forward to some offers of great coaching on this topic! Over the years, about the furthest I have got is to learn how to order a beer and ask for the bill. I’m proud to say I can now do this in eight different languages.

However, this limited vocabulary was going to be of little use to me as I observed my colleagues run the program. I had also promised to say a few words to kick the thing off, and thought it might be a bit early in the day for a beer, so I added another phrase to my vocabulary – “Mi dispiace, non parlo italiano” which ( I hope) means “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian”.

They were very tolerant of me and, after I’d finished, I sat quietly at the back of the room and watched the experts get on with running the course. As I was listening, I saw what a great practical example this was of what we always knew about learning – that it is about more than just the words.

It is often said that only 7% of the success of our communications is down to the words we use. Albert Mehrabian published research in 1981 where the 7-38-55 rule first appeared – 7% of the message is conveyed by words, 38% by tone of voice, and 55% by body language. In fact, his research was much narrower, about how we convey and interpret feelings – the rule determines how much we like someone when they’re talking about their feelings. It’s been incorrectly applied more widely over the years.

However, other studies have come up with a range of different ratios showing the importance of words versus the non-verbal elements and there clearly is a contribution to the success of our communication from both. When we deliver our leadership coach training programme, we are always flexing our style between trainer, facilitator and coach. My inability to understand Italian became less important as I could clearly see my colleagues using these different styles.

It was a great reminder about some core lessons about listening. It’s a vital skill for coaches to have and, of course, for leaders too. There are many reasons why this is so. For example, how often do we hear about major disasters that have ruined the reputation of companies where somebody in the organisation could see it was going to happen but nobody listened to them.

Also, when you think back to the great bosses, that you have had, my guess is that one quality they all share was that you felt listened to, and that builds loyalty and engagement.

The good news is that it’s possible to build this muscle – and the bad news is it needs constant practice. If you’d like to look at slightly different approach to improving your listening, then I’d recommend  “The Listening Book” by W.A. Mathieu.

I’d be really interested to hear your tips on building the skill of listening; how it impacts on your leadership, and any books you’d recommend. Buon ascolto!”

Leadership and Only Connect

I had fun earlier this year taking part in a TV quiz show on BBC4, called Only Connect, hosted by Victoria Coren. I formed a team with two old friends of mine and, because it had been my idea, they wanted me to be captain. I’m still not sure if this was a leadership privilege or a curse. The show was broadcast a couple weeks ago and so we are finally allowed to talk about the result. I’ll save you the trouble of watching it and tell you that although we lost, some kind people said that we emerged with some credit.

Continue reading

The comedy of leadership

I’ve had a couple of interesting evenings watching live comedy shows recently and saw what I thought were interesting parallels between the world of comedic performance and leadership – often also a performance. Now, I am sure we all have seen some examples of leadership that are laughable, but that’s not quite what I mean.

The first show was at the Comedy Store in London and featured an evening of improvisation. I love improv – I like the spontaneity and the originality you get from creating in the moment from what is around you. We use improv in our leadership coach training because, however well a leader plans, events change and so the need to react in the moment is a key skill. And we know that humour, pitched at the right level and at the right time, can be really supportive for teams, and is a key element of emotional intelligence.

The Comedy Store Players take ideas from the audience on places or situations or roles or anything that will support them in creating an amusing scenario. They play with the audience, sometimes with rudeness, sometimes with humour, judging in the moment which will have the best outcome. I never saw them being cruel to the audience; they see and engage the audience as part of their team. The success of the evening is due to a blend of the talents and experience on the stage, whilst also taking vital input from the audience – a good way to run any team.

The second show was a classic evening of stand-up comedy with four acts and a compere. I’d gone with my wife, Helen, thinking it would be a fun evening. The compere started the evening, ”warming up” the audience to prepare us for the first act. Bless him, he tried hard, but seemed to lack two skills. Firstly, his timing was just not quite right, and secondly the interaction with the audience was both formulaic and also passive. By that I mean he set the audience up to deliver an essential background to his act, without involving them, consulting them, or trying to play to their strengths. A familiar storyline of poor leadership.

He handed over to the first act, who pitched for the audiences sympathy and then spent the rest of his time dragging out a few tired and stale stories which to me seemed like a rehash of old material, neither funny nor original. 5 minutes into the second act, which, to be fair, was mildly, if only briefly, entertaining we realised we could find more entertainment in each other’s company with a glass of wine in the bar.

We came back for the fourth act, Bill Bailey, the real reason we were at the gig in the first place. The formula was the same – he had a routine he’d been working on, but the delivery and the interaction with the audience were on a different level. The comedy was intelligent and funny, his timing was great, and he showed respect for the audience, using their heckling to create more humour. So a blend of prepared and improv gave this act the edge.

I’m sure by now you have seen the parallels that I saw here for leadership. Here’s some guidance I once read for improv actors:-

The successful ‘improv’ players bag of tricks includes:-
• listening to others without prejudgment
• accepting what is offered by others
• trusting that the group will solve a problem together
• letting go of one’s own needs to control situations or predetermine outcomes

Imagine working for a leader who embodied those principles – imagine being that leader.

In summary then, the successful leader treats their team with respect; consults and involves the team; creates solutions in the moment from all the resources around them, including the team; uses humour to good effect; delivers a great performance.

Oh, and knows when to cut their losses and go to the bar.

Influential leadership: what you need to know

Captain’s Blog

Stardate 240709

What’s the one thing about leadership you need to know?  What is it your boss needs to know you know?

It’s got to be said: everything a leader says or does creates an impact. Body language, the way he or she walks into the room; what they say and the way the say it.  The leader has the single biggest impact on driving performance: up or down.

Team members are looking for direction from our leaders, explicitly or otherwise; and our leaders hand down that direction in the subtlest of ways.  The team will pick up on a vocal nuance, a raised eyebrow, or the way papers are shuffled at the beginning of a meeting.  The interpretation they make of these actions will impact upon what happens outside that room as they apply the direction they’ve ‘heard’.

I’m hearing this feedback from the leaders I coach and members of their teams, as well as from directing my own teams.  The good news is that their experience is backed up by organisational research evidence.  To remind myself of these sources, I turned to the work of Daniel Goleman, the ’emotional intelligence’ expert, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, who together wrote a book published in the US under the title ‘Primal Leadership*’ and in the UK as ‘The New Leaders’.

Their focus is on the ‘resonant leader’ and they used a “global database of 3,871 executives in which several factors that influenced the working environment were assessed”.  Two key findings were that “leadership styles affected financial results, such as return on sales, revenue growth, efficiency, and profitability”; and “leaders who used styles with a positive emotional impact saw decidedly better returns than those that did not”. 

What this tells us, regardless of whether you work for the private, public or not-for-profit sector, is that your bottom line – however measured – is impacted on by your leaders.

Cutting to the chase, what’s the one thing we can do as leaders to improve our bottom line (however measured)?  Find out what motivates the people who work for us – one by one – and play to their strengths.  Leadership isn’t all about us; it’s about a successful team and we unlock that success when we know what their strengths are and what really motivates people.

Watching the Australia/England cricket highlights this week I heard a great line which I’m paraphrasing here: ‘play to your team’s strengths, not to the opposition’s weaknesses’.  We can only do this when we truly get to know the people who work with and for us.

So if you’re having a tough week at work and the signals you’re getting from your boss are driving down your motivation and performance, print this out and leave it in a prominent place.  Your boss needs to know how to unlock your success and he/she needs to know that you know it too.

 

*Quoted from: “Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence”, Goleman D., Boyatzis R., McKee A., Harvard Business School Press, 2002, pp53/54.  The reference to the original database is set out on p.265.