EDITOR’S NOTE: This is not an article about the serious and potentially harmful biases that exist in the workplace. This is an article about nuanced and simplified biases and not one about workplace bias meant to harm. These types of biases are serious and need immediate action, if you or a co-worker is dealing with this there are avenues to help. Please start here.
WRITER’S NOTE: This is an article about the things I learn about Leadership from attempting to be a parent. I say attempt because I think that’s exactly what most of us parents try to do. We put our best foot forward and figure it out as we go. Like parenting, leadership strikes me as an eerily similar endeavor. It’s from these stories of being a parent that I then connect to the finer points of leadership. In no way do I think they are identical but I do think we can learn from each other.
Last night my daughters learned about “Snapchat” and I will tell you from the get-go what I learned from their Snapchating.
I learned that my biases or pre-conceived notions and perceptions about how one of my daughters was going to react actually kept me from a simple truth that should’ve struck me in the face. One that kept me from avoiding an eventual argument between the two.
As leaders, I think we also use our pre-conceived notions to help continue our mental status quo so that we can make better sense of our employees and those we serve. Why do we do this? The list can be long but in short, we do this because of a few things that I think are important to talk about here.
For one, our very own brains don’t help us out sometimes. We use our reticular activating system to our detriment sometimes. What is R.A.S? I’ll explain below.
Also, leading others is a tricky, nuanced, and sometimes difficult job (duh). When we rachet up the expectations of “what leaders can do” then we set ourselves up for failure. We should, instead, pay attention to reality and truth.
It’s our own biases that sometimes keeps us from these simple truths that could make our jobs as leaders wayyyyyy easier. If this Snapchat story can help you lead better, then that’s my goal.
Now for context, my two daughters are 9 and 6 years old respectfully and the day before I had gotten out the app to entertain their 6-month old cousin (my nephew) during an obligatory “Uncle Craig babysitting session”.
So after seeing me use it to entertain my nephew with a wiiiiiide variety of Snapchat filters and funny faces, they both asked to try it out themselves. After a brief tutorial and anxious-Dad warning about social media (can never start them too early, am I right?), they both got to play with the app.
After 5-minutes of laughing hysterically, my 6-year old daughter Elsie came to me to show me her handy work.
Now, hilarious mouse-filter aside, Elsie was proud that she was able to use the app herself. But it was the legit laughs Elsie got from her captive audience (me and her sister) that caused her sister, Hazel, to realize she too wanted her Snapchat glory and reach for the phone, immediately.
The moment I knew my biases were “off”
If you’re a parent you know the moment I’m about to describe. If you’re not, no worries because I promise this will make sense.
The excitement of potentially creating her own funny Snapchat video created an excitement in my 9-year old daughter that caused her to literally rip the phone out of her sister’s hands and immediately attempt to “create her own video”.
She was excited and just began to bang on the phone’s screen. The app didn’t do what she wanted so my 9-year old daughter got upset. She couldn’t figure it out. At the same time, her younger sister was telling her (and me) “hand the phone to me, I can help.” She kept trying to get her older sister’s attention as she got more and more frustrated. She was patiently attempting to help because, in this setting, she was the expert.
Nothing worked. The intensity slowly built and I knew it was about to boil over into a fight. I could see it.
As the “leader” of the situation, all I wanted to do was avoid a conflict. It was Sunday night, post-baths, family dinner and now calm and quiet was my goal. I also had my own work to attend to before bedtime so I was a bit impatient.
As a leader, you get this. How often has an employee came to you as you’re at your busiest and said “Hey, I don’t want to cause a fight but I have something you need to know. Do you have 5 minutes?”.
How do you react?
Do you get excited and calm down as you willfully give all your attention to the upset employee? Or do you, as I do, get upset and even anxi0us of what you assume will happen.
This is where your bias is on full display for you to pay attention to or be subject of.
Back to my daughters.
As my 9-year old grew more frustrated with her inability to get he Snapchat filters on her own face (video for context) it was me who told her younger, now pleading, sister to be quiet so her older and more frustrated sister could figure it out. I even got upset with her younger sister for interrupting (she was trying to help, and she could do it too).
I didn’t pay attention to what her younger sister was EVEN SAYING because I didn’t want my sometimes fragile (yet heartbreakingly compassionate) 9-year old daughter to get so frustrated she then would give up. So I made things easier for her. I told her that she could have all the time she wanted to figure it out (I gave her younger sister a strict 5-minute limit). I even attempted to help myself (despite really having no clue what I’m doing).
And just as the crescendo of the event was about to happen something struck me.
Her younger sister knows exactly what to do. Let her help. She’s the expert.
So that’s what I did.
And all was right.
Why didn’t I react this way from the beginning?
How often have you let your own biases or internal voice tell you, preemptively, how any issue with employees is going to go? How often have you summed up EXACTLY how an employee is going to react before they’ve had a chance to “attempt”? Have you ever gone so far as to set up an employee for success despite them not deserving it because you want to avoid a potential conflict?
Don’t beat your self up because I do it with my KIDS (and employees).
The point here is that the truth was far more accurate than my own perception and yet I ignored it until it was almost too late.
What were my biases?
- Her older sister was smarter with a phone (not acknowledging expert or experience insight)
- I knew better than my 6-year-old daughter (age bias)
- My 9-year old daughter deserves more of my attention in certain situations (favoritism….I love them both equally, but you get me right?)
What was the actual truth?
- The younger sister had actually used the app and knew was she was doing, she was the expert.
- I didn’t’ know a dang thing.
- The older sister needed to step back from the situation and allow for help.
The situation deserves the attention and not the people.
What’s the leadership lesson here?
Ultimately our duty as leaders is to create environments in which our employees (or those we serve) can flourish. That means that we set them up for success as much as possible. However, that doesn’t mean we have to.
Switching your attention to a specific situation can immediately remove your pre-conceived notions about the person or persons involved. Staying attentive to goals and project outcomes is difficult when working with people. Think of it as just stepping out of body for a second. That’s the goal.
But the more we interact with our employees, spend time working with them or watching them, then the more often these experiences create pre-conceived notions about how they’ll react in any given situation. That’s why you need to start by creating specific lines of communication, expectations and a basic understanding of “who does what” in any given circumstance.
The more clear these lines are, the less your biases will show (or even have an opportunity to show).
Secondly, we are better served as leaders OURSELVES when we reduce our worry or anxiety around people’s own personalities and instead focus on the truth presented in any given situation. This can be the hardest to get around because we, too, are human after all. This doesn’t mean then that we sacrifice our mental health to accommodate any personality type. We better serve them by serving yourself first.
Work is a human endeavor regardless of how much you actually interact with them on a daily basis. Which is why it’s nice to know about how us humans work.
Now to that whole “reticular activating system”
There are lots of leadership articles and books that like to tout your reticular activation system as the “key to your dreams” or even as a key component of being a great leader or manager. To these authors’ credit, there are benefits to using this biological system to your advantage. But that’s another article entirely (especially how I use it).
Why it’s important here is because, as a former Coach of mine used to say “what makes you good can make you bad”. And your reticular activation system is synonymous with focusing on the wrong things.
What’s your reticular activating system to begin with?
Glad you asked.
Your reticular activation system or “RAS” for short (I’m going to call it that now so I don’t have to type it as much) is a part of your brain that connects to the top of your spinal column up to the base of your brain stem. It’s a very important piece of your brain’s anatomy.
Your RAS plays a vital role in taking all information from 4 of your 5 senses (smell is the only sense that is hardwired to neurons in the brain’s emotional center) and acting as sort of a gatekeeper for your conscious mind. It tells your brain where to apply focus or where to not pay attention.
Remember, our brains are taking in a LOT all the time. You need help. It’s your RAS’ job to filter out the “unnecessary” information at any given moment. What’s unnecessary to your RAS depends on many factors. Most often, it’s the things we have done or seen before. That means the more often it happens, the less interesting it is to your RAS.
RAS and Leadership Bias
You don’t know it, so stop beating yourself up, but these systems work whether you want them to or not. And they’re primarily influenced by learned behavior over time.
So if your employees are doing things that create a stimulus and reaction from you then this is where RAS can be taken advantage of either knowingly, or more than likely, completely unknowingly. And therein lies another simple truth that comes into play in being a parent or leader.
Most things at work are paradoxical.
They’re what I call “both/and thinking” and they involve complex and layered people who are diverse and unique to begin with. Same goes for the nature of work and the problems in them. Most people are taught to elicit reactions from their leaders to gain favor.
Your RAS is working to help remove unnecessary information from your way. From your focus.
When my daughter decided to swipe the phone out of her little sister’s hands my immediate reaction was already pre-determined. Because of past behavior, I immediately imagined a situation where Hazel would know how to use the phone (because she is older, age bias) and her little sister would immediately whine that “her sister took it”. I automatically began to watch for signs of a meltdown.
My RAS was saying, “do whatever possible to avoid a meltdown” because it’s happened a few times before.
How often have you reacted before the action even took place?
How often have you prepared for a moment of conflict and took action to stop it before it starts?
More than likely you have and it’s also likely that this has happened more than once. These motives might have involved pre-learned biases and your RAS is to blame (and to benefit).
Here are some tricks to help overcome your own biases in any situation.
Focus on the task/situation at hand.
When an employee comes to you with a gripe or a specific issue with another employee, ask for clarification or details surrounding the particular situation itself. Not the people.
Focus on the goals, outcomes, or otherwise bullet list of items that created the issue, to begin with.
Pay attention only to what is truth and what is opinion/ judgment. The more you get your employes to also focus on the truth it makes the second point way easier.
Only ask for “What they know for sure”.
This is what you need to begin training yourself on reacting with. This is also the toughest part of the process. This is also the most rewarding step as once you master this, the rest becomes easy.
Beyond the specifics or context of the situation, it’s also good to get your employee to focus on what directly led to the moment in terms of a step progression of truth.
Think of it as the list of “evidence” that is physical or tangible in nature. Ask for details. The more detail- the more likely the employee will begin to see the truth before you’ve even weighed in.
Make sure to keep your tone and rate of speech in “normal” levels for yourself. If you feel yourself becoming emotional, sped up or switch into “high gear” then tell yourself to slow down. This is a big part of ensuring this process doesn’t elicit the same RAS reaction within them (triggered by perceived emotions from your reaction).
Then ask “how can I help”
From here you can switch back into “manager mode” and get your resources out to make things happen. Simply ask those involved from there. Don’t involve more people than necessary. Stick to actions you have full control or line of sight over. The more you’re confident with the steps of action the better.
A word of wise warning from experience: understand, these actions build trust with authenticity, equal treatment, fairness, and respect.
These are the hallowed grounds of emotional engagement for employees. Do NOT take them lightly. To do so, and then do nothing after you’ve calmed the situation, avoided bias and asked for honest feedback is to truly disengage your employees.
You could always try this on your kids first. I’ve found they’re great little lab rats.