Unbiasing – how we put people in boxes in organisations, and why we should stop.

Leadership Blog  |  5 minute read

Gemma Toner

Written by Gemma Toner

Unbiasing – how we put people in boxes in organisations, and why we should stop.

“Bias and impartiality is in the eye of the beholder”-Samuel Johnson

 

So you’ve got a really tough target to hit this year and it’s going to take some creative thinking to get past the blockers that seem to be popping up at every turn. You need one of your leaders to step up to the challenge and get their team to deliver. You have lots of leaders in your organisation but most of them are busy, so you only have the choice of two: Donna or Dave.

 

Filling up boxes

They have both been working for you for the same length of time, they’re both around the same age. But you have different Little Voices about each of them…

Donna is great. She’s well organised, well respected by her team and always gets them to perform well in this type of scenario. You are confident that you can keep giving her this stuff.

Then there’s Dave. In your view, Dave is useless. Two years ago, when you gave him something like this to handle but he fell well short of what you expected.  You felt let down. You know he didn’t really get the support he needed, but that wasn’t the point. From then on you started to pay more attention to what Dave couldn’t do. There was a lot he was struggling with then, and he’s not performing well now.

So, it’s decided. There’s no hope for Dave. Dave is firmly in the box labelled ‘useless’.

Donna it is! Donna is in the box labelled ‘capable.’

 

Writing people off

Some might agree that you’ve made the right choice by cutting Dave from the equation.  He deserves to be in that ‘useless’ box.

Come to think of it, other people in the business live in other boxes in your head, because they deserve to be there too. There’s Darren from accounts in the box labelled ‘too critical’.  He picks holes in your ideas constantly and is obsessed with detail.

Daniel from procurement is in a box labelled ‘doesn’t listen’. He just wants to tell you what to do and he can’t see anything past his own department.

And there’s Diane from sales in the box labelled ‘pushy and loud’.  She’s always trying to meet with you to discuss something that’s bothering her about the sales process. You don’t want to know.

You approach them all in different ways because of the boxes you’ve put them in: You pass opportunities to Donna, don’t consider Dave for anything important; argue with Darren all the time; get frustrated with Daniel and avoid Diane like the plague.

You’d like things to be different, but people are who they are. You’re a good judge of character and you know they can’t change. They’ll be like that forever and the way you see them will always be the same.

Unless…you challenge your bias.

 

3 steps to ‘the truth’

It’s part of being human that we create bias toward or against something or someone, so it’s no surprise that you will have a set of assessments or ‘truths’ about people that may or may not be helpful.

The question is: Are our assessments true?

Our answer: No. We make them true.

Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

You have probably already heard of confirmation bias.  It’s where we look for, interpret and recall information that confirms our assessments. It’s the reason we put people into boxes and forget to keep challenging our views, in the first place. We call this dynamic ‘sealing the truth’. There are three steps to creating a personal ‘truth’ about something or someone:

  • We make an assessment
  • We find evidence that supports it
  • We decide it’s the truth and it will never change

This dynamic can be helpful if we are holding a useful assessment about someone. Like the one about Donna. Donna will feel empowered to thrive and progress in her career. Her team will flourish.

But what if something goes wrong for Donna? She knows how disappointed you were in Dave and because you have a high opinion of her, if she’s struggling she’s not going to let you know.  She will cover up any difficulties she is having and try to handle everything herself… until she can’t handle things any more and she fails. Catastrophically. Her reputation for being capable is ruined and she feels humiliated. Despite her amazing track record, you won’t be trusting her with anything important again.

Into the ‘useless box’, Donna!

 

The danger with assumptions

We must recognise that assumptions, even positive ones, can do damage.  They can be dangerous as they not only have the biggest impact on your people but can have the farthest-reaching consequences on your business.

Take Dave. Dave came to the business full of potential having achieved outstanding results elsewhere but now feels overlooked and undermined.  You’ve never spoken to him about his underperformance two years ago. He expected to progress in his career; that’s what you promised, but now it’s not happening he’s become despondent. He’s got a good relationship with his team members and they like him. He’s supportive of them in their career aspirations and he had a few team members he was coaching to take on more responsibilities but that seems to have stopped. Since you’ve given all the opportunities to Donna, you’ve seen that Dave comes up with less ideas and seems less motivated than he used to.  It’s even starting to rub off on his team.

Dave will probably leave, but not before his team have disengaged too. If you’d not boxed him in after he didn’t deliver, Dave could be in a much better place.

It’s also dangerous if it causes us to ignore people with good ideas. Diane has a new sales approach she wants to introduce, it could double your figures, but because you won’t speak to her, she’s started talking to another company about a job. She’s excited as they want to hear her ideas and will give her the space to try them out.  Diane is your top sales person and she’s out of the door. The worry is your top clients love her… will they go too?

 

Cultural impact

This worst thing for organisations, is that through our judgements we create an unpleasant working environment for ourselves and our colleagues. Think Darren and Daniel.  They have enrolled their colleagues in the organisation by labelling you ‘unreasonable and terrible to work for’. They won’t leave, but you’ve noticed a distinct shift in the atmosphere at work when you arrive in the office.  People leave the room a lot faster if you’re in it, and there’s far less eye contact. The other leaders don’t communicate with you as much so you’re never quite certain of what’s happening in their teams.  But they’re just busy, aren’t they? They can’t all be avoiding you because they decided you’re terrible to work for?

But that’s the thing.  You’re not the only one who can put people in a box. We all need to stop!

 

A new perspective

Three ideas that might help you to release any unhelpful assessments you’ve made of your colleagues or your team:

  • People can always learn and grow.
  • There’s nothing wrong, just something missing
  • The future potential of people is not determined by their past

The next time the ‘Little Voice’ in your head tells you someone is useless, consider this:

  • What are you really committed to?
  • Are you more committed to your own assessment, or to a better relationship with your people?
  • Are you more committed to your own assessment or hearing an idea that could deliver a breakthrough in how you work or how your deliver results?
  • Are you more committed to your own assessment or embracing diverse perspectives and opinions?

And finally ask yourself – Are you ready to shift your mindset, to free up yourself and others to pave the way for you all to achieve great things?

If the answer to all of these is yes – lets get out those scissors and unseal that box!

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