Helping Leaders Overcome Biases That Block True Connections

3 min read
9 October 2018

A global economy requires strong collaborative skills from every effective leader. However, neuroscience has revealed that unconscious bias, now detectable using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), is a reality, and understanding how to manage it in leaders is fundamental.

Sitting down with a Canadian Senator to discuss leadership

While filming Make Me A Leader, I had the pleasure of meeting the Honourable Kim Pate, who was appointed to the Senate of Canada in November of 2016. She has long advocated on behalf of women who were victimised and marginalised in the Canadian criminal justice system.

Forcing change is not a good leadership technique. Instead, leaders need to develop qualities that provide mutual growth benefits to everyone involved, from the very top to the very bottom. Sharing and learning from each other is a strength, and everyone, no matter their role or what society may judge them for, can have a voice that others can learn from.

We can work together to address a myriad of issues, and I will learn from you, and you will learn from me.

Kim Pate

Unfortunately, bias naturally plays a role in our decisions and leadership-making skills. Unconscious bias has been found to be pervasive in our lives, even for people who should ‘know better.’ Even scientists are guilty of unconscious bias, and studies have found that female or minority scientists experience prejudice when it comes to funding and getting published (Kuehn, 2017).

What does unconscious bias really mean
for leaders?

When you walk into a room, you make impressions about the people, the surroundings, the smells, sounds, and everything in there almost instantly. These first impressions are often difficult for us to overcome. Maybe you were bullied by a redhead as a child, and you have an unconscious dislike for redheaded individuals. Our biases can be very personal, and they can be reasonable or totally off the
wall unreasonable.

To begin to fix the problem of unconscious bias, you first have to admit that there IS a problem. For many, they just wave it off and say they’ve always been this way, or it’s no big deal. But, if you are one of the people being marginalised, it is a big deal. It can affect your personal and professional life, and as humans, we should treat each other better than this.

Biases faced by women in leadership positions can be profound

The ‘good old boys’ club is still very much in effect today. Look at the leading bodies in many countries. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the 115th Congress of the United States (2017-2019) is comprised of only 19.8% women. Canada fares somewhat better, with 88 women elected to serve in the 338-member Canadian House of Commons in 2015 (26% women). As of 2016, women represented 29% of members in the Australian House of Representatives.

While these numbers are slowly increasing, there is still a rather pitiful lack of representation for women. Women, after all, make up about half of the population on this planet, and expected ratios should reflect this. Breaking free of the old stereotypical roles has proven challenging for some women, especially in certain parts of the world. However, when we look at ‘leading’ countries like the USA, Canada, and Australia, we clearly see room for improvement.

Wait, is there really such a thing as
unconscious bias?

Looking at the data on women in positions of power, it’s clear that something is holding women back. Common excuses often blame family pressures or the lack of desire to lead. But, do these reasons really explain why there aren’t as many
female leaders?

Scientists such as Dr. Bernard J. Luskin have now validated unconscious bias, using techniques such as MRI, and they have found that this kind of bias is widespread and measurable. It affects the behaviour and decision-making abilities of leaders, but before we can solve this issue, people have to acknowledge it.

As Dr. Luskin explains in his blog, MRIs Reveal Unconscious Bias in the Brain, the amygdala is a cluster of neurons located in your temporal lobe, and it is known as the emotional center of your brain. It causes you to have the ‘fight or flight’ impulse in reaction to threats. You may unconsciously react to perceived risks, such as someone who reminds you of a bully from childhood. Your frontal cortex, which helps you form initial impressions, can also lead to unconscious bias, as you rapidly develop an impression about someone, often before you really have a chance to learn
about them.

Neuroscience has shown that this phenomenon is real, and the time to merely accept it as status quo is over. It is not acceptable for persons leading our political and business organisations to continue to show unconscious bias. Fortunately, we can learn to work together and learn from each other, giving great hope for the future.

Kuehn, B. M. (2017). Rooting out bias. eLife, 6, e32014.



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