3 Ways to Overcome Leadership Biases

Every one of us is biased.

You might not believe so, but acknowledging the potential impact of bias on your leadership and decision making is the first step towards overcoming the seemingly unavoidable damage.

Biases are a type of cognitive shortcut that explains how our brains oversimplify information by processing it through a filter of personal experiences or preferences.

Psychologists have shown that we are all “hard-wired” to favor people we perceive to be like us.  In turn, we tend to react negatively to people who are too different from how we perceive ourselves. 

Our subconscious brain filters and sorts information every time we interact with another human being, and then responds in a specific way based on hundreds of thousands of micro-messages we receive from and about that individual.

At face value, these assumptions we often make seem like nothing but trouble, however they serve an important function in decision making.  By routing these millions and millions of concurrent data points through our subconscious we are able to rapidly arrive at conclusions that, depending on the situation, tend to be correct.  

While the accuracy of these judgments have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in our evolutionary timeline to identify threats and avoid danger, the mental shortcuts play a less critical role in the workplace.  Because it negatively affects how we interact with others.

There is some good news, however, since studies have shown that not all biases are preference-based.  In fact, some biases are largely biological.

 The amygdala – the brain’s alert mechanism for danger – evokes an illogical preconception when people are shown certain trigger images. When participants are shown images designed to evoke a fear-response, such as a snake or weapons, they were asked to describe the thoughts and feelings that emerged. 

What researchers discovered was that despite the fear-inducing images having little connection with the participant’s day-to-day life, the amygdala triggered illogical preconceived notions about the threat that were innate instead of learned. This confirms what we already understand: that bias has a biological basis and is not based solely on our thoughts and personal feelings. 

In other words, we do not need to believe a certain stereotype for it to influence the way we behave — as biases are often generated rapidly and unconsciously. This can be troublesome in the workplace as we may dismiss the worth of others due to differences in their worldviews, physical appearances, or backgrounds. 

So, why is this so important to understand in the workplace?

Unidentified and unaddressed unconscious biases can result in a toxic work environment that negatively affects employee trust, engagement, creativity, and performance. 

From an organizational and leadership standpoint, it is beneficial to identify the existence of unconscious biases in ourselves and others, and to direct our efforts toward recognizing and overcoming these prejudices for the good of the organization.

9 Most Common Leadership Biases

Cognitive or leadership bias come in many forms. Here are nine of the most common biases that often impact workplace effectiveness and relationships. 

1. Affinity Bias

2. The Bandwagon Effect

3. Confirmation Bias

4. Outcome Bias

5. Fundamental Attribution Error

6. Proximity Bias

7. The Halo Effect

8. Recency Bias

9. The Dunning Kruger Effect

Related read: 9 Cognitive Biases That Affect Your Leadership

How Can You Overcome Your Biases?

  1. Develop Self-Awareness Through Reflection.

The first step in eliminating leadership bias is to be aware of your blind spots. Try to stop and reflect before going forth with your decision making processes as a leader. For example, a hiring manager can reflect before making an employment decision by asking 

“Which part of this decision is based on the fact that this candidate fits the criteria and which part is because I just “like” them as a person?” 

It is easy to assume that our normal behaviors are unbiased because we do not usually self-monitor the “why” behind our own behaviors. That is why it is important that you develop self-awareness through constant reflection. 

Self-aware and reflective leaders can use their conscious or reflective brain to disrupt their built-in mental shortcuts and biases. It allows you to take a step back, identify your own biases, and understand how it affects the people around you. 

  1. Actively Seek Out Multiple Perspectives.

Another way to shine a light on your blind spots is through seeking multiple perspectives from diverse sources. With the support of relevant sources of knowledge as well as other people’s feedback, you can mitigate the impact of your own as well as other people’s unconscious biases. 

In fact, you should actively seek out opposing beliefs and opinions. By trying to understand an issue or a person from various perspectives, you can enrich your understanding and see the world with more empathy. 

  1. Adopt A Growth Mindset

People with a growth mindset believe that they can expand their knowledge and learn from criticism. They possess the intellectual humility to be humble enough to consider the possibility that they could be wrong. 

Instead of sticking to your beliefs no matter what, you should ask yourself, “What am I missing here?”, “Could the opposite be true?”, “Am I open to being influenced on this topic?”. Do not see mistakes as something shameful that you have to hide, see them as opportunities to learn and grow instead. With work and effort, it is possible to change the way you think. 

Although bias has a biological basis, it does not mean that you can use it to justify discriminatory behaviors. 

Become A Self-Aware Leader Today

Leaders who are aware of their own biases are in a better position to make better judgment calls because they are able to regularly self-evaluate, seek multiple perspectives, and employ collective intelligence.

They just make better leaders. Period.

In the grand scheme of things, increasing awareness of your own biases can help you become an overall more effective leader, decision-maker, and person. Get a reality check from your stakeholders by having them provide you regular feedback (or feedforward, which focuses on suggestions for the future, a concept popularized by Marshall Goldsmith, or reach out to a coach who can assist you in recognizing and overcoming your personal biases.

Using the proven Stakeholder Centered Coaching® (SCC) methodology, we at Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching® work with leaders to help them increase their leadership and behavioral effectiveness.

Explore our program by downloading the program brochure, or get in touch with our program advisor today. 



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