Unconscious Bias, Real-World Impact

*This is a guest blog post authored by Melvyn Payne, Commercial Director of Advanced People Strategies.

I was recently asked to support a successful senior leader – Chris – with some personal development insights from a recent 360 and set of Hogan Assessment results. Chris works in a fast-paced retail environment and has very high expectations for business success.

Having quickly achieved senior roles at a younger age than most colleagues, Chris finds it hard to understand why the broader management team and staff do not seem to respond to stretching targets. Very concerned about the potential negative impact on results, Chris recently ruled out an idea that emerged from a staff survey suggesting people who achieve their targets should be able to take time off as an incentive, rather than take a bonus.

Chris’s 360 feedback indicates an autocratic and inflexible style of leadership; demanding and somewhat intimidating. Chris’s thoughts on the 360 feedback… “I’d prefer it if they started to take responsibility and challenge me back if they think I am wrong.”

It may seem obvious to an outside observer that Chris is motivated by personal and material success. While no one wants to fail, a lack of a challenge is more demotivating to Chris than a target that others might see as unrealistic or unachievable. 

What Chris does not grasp, or prefers not to acknowledge, is that some of the most talented managers and salespeople in the organization do not wake up in the morning wanting to be the next CEO like Chris does. Unfortunately, Chris’s behaviors reflect this bias and, rather than inspire others to perform better, the relentless focus on pushing aggressively for results is having a negative impact on performance. 

The Hogan Assessments have been helpful to raise Chris’s awareness about why others might react differently to what Chris believes is ‘normal behavior.’ It has also provided some key insights for Chris about how to motivate others as their leader. 

However, what made me smile the most is when someone, hearing about Chris’s bias in this instance, said “typical alpha male.” Interestingly Chris, in this case, is a woman. As professionals supporting the development of others, how many of us really understand and acknowledge our own biases – how easily they show up and how they impact on our behavior?