Biases are hard to talk about.
We can all agree they exist. We can all agree that nobody is free from bias. But when it comes to owning up to them, we hesitate. We try to make the conversation hypothetical. At a push, we might offer up something that has been long since resolved. In fact, when I first sat down to write this blog, I was only going to write about a blind-spot I had in my teens—a bias you might expect someone with my upbringing to hold; most importantly, something that wouldn’t be particularly incriminating today. After all, for leaders, admitting to our deepest, darkest biases can run counter to the image of a leader as someone who offers reasoned, fair judgement on issues.
The problem is, if we are going to have a proper conservation about bias then we, as individuals and as leaders, need to start owning up to them—to the uncomfortable ones and even to the shameful ones.
So in that spirit...
I hold a favourable bias towards those who have a more prestigious education.
It’s not logical and I’m not proud of it. It’s instant. It’s a mental knee-jerk reaction—barely conscious. In fact, it was unconscious for a very long time. Of course, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to value education per se, but I think there’s a point where it can become prejudicial. And in my case, it has. It’s meant that over the years I’ve been a less effective leader. It’s caused me to underestimate some and overestimate others. Interestingly, I realised it when good friend of mine pointed out to me that when talking about other people to her, I often appended that person’s education onto my description of them. That got me thinking.
I think there are two reasons why I have held this bias for so long. The first reason is my family—a source of many biases for all of us. Education has been the way that everyone in my family has bettered themselves. My grandfather was born to a poor Irish family, who moved to the UK as soon as they could. Through a lot of luck, and the free education system in the UK, he gained a degree and went on to become a headmaster. And so on through my father, to me, who holds a PhD and a 2.1 degree from Oxford. The story of the power of education is a big part of my family’s narrative and it’s been a big part of my identity. Whilst I wouldn’t change this for the world, I also have to recognize that it’s skewed the way I see things. The second reason is an extension of the first: my own bias—like most biases—puts me close to the top of my own tree. Would I be so passionate about it if I had got a 1st class degree for instance?
So what am I doing about it?
The first thing that I did was to just stop asking people about their educational backgrounds. There are times when you can’t avoid it—during recruitment, for instance. In these cases, I get other people to check my working. I make sure the rest of my team sees the incoming CVs. If they arrive at different conclusions to me, then I know I need to re-examine my decision-making process. Has it been affected by anything irrational?
I also make sure I’m surrounded by people who will prove me wrong. I think sometimes it’s not enough to know you have a bias. You have to see it starting and failing; and then use the experience to unlearn the blind-spots you’ve developed.
More than just surrounding myself with diverse groups of people, I also try to make sure they are empowered to challenge me when they think I’m wrong. Biases can crumble during heated debates. I try to make sure challenge and debate is a significant feature in my leadership style.
All these things are about making sure other people can and will act as a check and a balance. All of these things are about making sure I remain hyper-aware.
In my case, this particular bias has receded over time. The knee-jerk reaction is not so strong, not so instant these days. Perhaps one day it will subside completely; perhaps not. But by acknowledging and talking openly about my biases, I believe I’ve become a better, more inclusive leader. So the question is, does our society make it possible for people to acknowledge their own biases; and not just in public forums, but with friends and colleagues? Or is the threat to reputation too great? I believe we need to talk more honestly about our biases, not just to find better solutions but because, so often, talking is the solution.