Do you pride yourself on being a quick judge of talent? Here’s how this could be undermining your leadership.
True story. Early in my corporate career, when I was a brand assistant at P&G, my brand manager sat me down to give me some feedback. A cross-functional team member had approached him and said I didn’t value this person’s opinion during our team meetings. When my brand manager asked me about it, I said “You’re right. I don’t. He doesn’t have any value to add, so why should I value his opinion?” My brand manager burst out laughing. “You don’t suffer fools easily, do you?” “You’re right!” I said with a hint of pride in my voice. For a long time I carried that badge proudly in my corporate career, even patting myself on the back for being a “good judge of talent”. Now that many of my executive coaching clients ask me about how to better develop and engage talent, I tell them they need to learn how to “suffer fools”. Here’s why.
Feeling Valued Drives Engagement
According to the latest employee engagement survey results by Towers Watson “feeling valued” is a key driver of sustainable engagement. According to an HBR blog post by Tony Schwartz “no single behavior more viscerally and reliably influences the quality of people’s energy than feeling valued and appreciated by their supervisor.” Companies at the highest levels of sustainable engagement outperform those at the lowest by a margin of 3 to 1 in terms of profit margins.
What Is the Value of The Mona Lisa? Depends on What You See
Imagine we are at the Louvre in Paris. We are there to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the most visited painting in the world. We’re excited to finally see it because we have heard so much about it. When we get there, we’re rather disappointed. All we see is a bunch of shades of dark brown mixed with gray. We walk off, dismissing Mona Lisa as just one of those over-hyped paintings.
What happened is our normal way of evaluating people or situations:
- We trust what we see
- We assume we’re seeing the complete picture
- We don’t know that we are seeing the picture through a narrow lens
- We don’t know that we created the lens ourselves.
You see, we saw Mona Lisa through a narrow lens which happened to be placed in the middle of the painting above her hands. So we saw only the dark brown and grey. This is called unconscious bias because we didn’t even know we are creating the narrow lenses through which we see people.
The Neuroscience of Unconscious Bias
Our brains need to categorize all the incoming information we have in order to make sense of it. We would be paralyzed into constant data overload unless our brains decided which information to pay attention to. So, our brains create short cuts for processing information by developing a filter or a framework. Over time these frameworks literally create patterns in our brain where any incoming information is efficiently sorted for relevance. Most of this happens below our conscious awareness, and evolved as part of our survival mechanism.
For example, if our ancestors sensed they were in danger of being attacked by a lion, the “first response” part of our brain, the amygdala went into action. Adrenaline was released, pupils in the eyes literally dilated, and all our resources were made available for survival first. After all, reasoning skills (a different part of the brain) were secondary to out running the lion.
Here’s the downside of this biological response. In our 24/7, high-stress lives, we don’t realize that we’re seeing people and situations through our own unique and narrowed lens. As stress hormones constantly release cortisol, we don’t realize that the lens gets smaller as our “fight or flight” impulses are triggered when we feel under threat. In today’s corporate jungle our brain response does not distinguish between the threat of being eaten by a lion and a threat to our self-image (our desire to look good).
How Does Unconscious Bias Undermine Leadership?
As a young assistant brand manager, impatient to get promoted and move ahead, I had no time for people I believed had no value to add. I would quickly evaluate a person through the narrow lens of my own needs to determine how useful they could be against preset criteria. If I saw “brown and grey”, I would quickly dismiss them and move on. Of course this would leave people feeling devalued. They were. That is because the way our brain works, we don’t believe what we see. We only see what we believe. So, if we’ve written someone off, of course they don’t have any contributions to make.
Here’s what I’ve discovered now. Every single person is a Mona Lisa if we ourselves can widen the lens through which we see them. We tend to only observe value when it is in the attributes we are expecting or those we consider socially desirable. We tend to devalue traits in others that we often have in ourselves but have hidden from our own view because of our beliefs.
To Engage others Practice Widening The Lens
If we dismiss others, we limit their potential to contribute. We also limit our own potential to be leaders who inspire contributions from each person on our team.
Here are some questions to ask ourselves when we are about to dismiss a person:
- How can I “Widen My Lens” in this moment? Sometimes this requires a deep breath to get ourselves out of our stressful mode.
- What have I seen this person contribute?
- What strengths do I notice that allow this contribution?
- What can I learn from this person?
As an on-going leadership practice, mindfulness is a great way to catch ourselves in the act of dismissing a person, in overall lowering our stress levels so our lenses can stay wider, and in examining the unique lens or “framework of beliefs” through which we see the world. For many of my executive coaching clients it has made a tremendous impact in emotional intelligence and employee engagement.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King: “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve… You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” And the feeling of being valued for your contributions. This is the journey of transformational leadership.
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This article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach, speaker, and consultant. She works with women to realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders, and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, engagement, and impact in the world. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Nestle, J&J, Home Depot and others who deeply care about growing their female leadership talent. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.