Purposeful Talent Development: Bias Can Hold You Back

mini watering can watering plant
Jennifer Stangl Photo
Director of Professional Development

4 minutes

How 4 kinds of unconscious prejudices can get in the way of our learning—and how to mitigate their impact

I’ve been engaging in a lot of conversations lately about bias. Any bias we hold, especially unconscious bias, influences our daily interactions via perspectives we seek, ways we communicate, ideas we endorse, and even whether we choose to promote or help develop another person. We make daily decisions that are, many times, simple reactions that keep us functioning. But, left unexamined, these decisions can chain us to our comfort zone and limit our success. 

Recently reflecting on my own biases, I wondered what I may have missed out on in my life because a bias led me away from an experience, an encounter, a conversation or greater self-awareness. A bias, unconscious or not, can impact not just relationships but how well we can develop and grow. As a leader, it is valuable to recognize how your biases may reduce your development. You may also be able to help your staff see how their bias may limit their development. 

Here are some common types of bias that can impact our ability to develop and learn, along with a few tips for mitigating them. Use these for your own development or to support the development of your staff/team.

  • Confirmation bias favors ideas that confirm our existing beliefs. This type of bias can limit the experiences or opinions we seek out, holding us to what we believe will happen, and limiting our ability to see a fuller picture or to gather accurate data. We can often shut down new experiences or diverse perspectives if they do not align with our beliefs. 

To mitigate this bias, try playing devil’s advocate either in a group or during self-reflection. This will force you to think about something from the other side, pulling you out of your own beliefs and opening your mind to new ideas.

  • Affinity bias focuses you on connecting with people who are like you or share beliefs similar to yours. When we are around those like us and feel comfort and security with our beliefs, we can limit our ability to see new perspectives, stifling opportunities to be creative or innovative. 

To mitigate this bias, push yourself to connect with those who have different viewpoints or experiences than your own. Force yourself out of your comfort zone and into a space that challenges your conventional way of thinking.

  • Self-serving bias attributes our successes to our knowledge or experience and our failures to outside factors. This bias can reduce your ownership for any negative (real or perceived) outcomes and could harmfully boost your confidence reducing your desire to seek out new opportunities and perspectives to learn. 

To mitigate this bias, reflect on past situations and identify your own and others’ involvement to acknowledge what you brought to the outcome and where you may have received help, ensuring you take responsibility and recognize where you’ve had support.

  • Bandwagon bias (or groupthink) allows the harmony of a group to impact decision-making by avoiding critical evaluation. When working with groups, if one voice is too loud or limits are placed on hearing other ideas, this bias can limit comfort in speaking up or a create a willingness to listen to others, swaying people towards the “popular opinion.”

To mitigate this bias, if you are the leader of the group, avoid sharing your preferences or ideas too early and demonstrate an openness to listen to individuals and to have your ideas and assumptions challenged.

  • “Halo” or “horn” bias is developing an overall appraisal based on one good or bad trait—once you have a favorable opinion, you think all positively about that person or process (halo) or, conversely, once you have a negative opinion, you think all negatively about that person or process (horn). This bias can cause us to judge an individual or experience quickly, thereby limiting the desire to engage in further discussion, leverage an individual as a future resource or attempt a new experience.

To mitigate this bias, intentionally seek out the opinions of others to check your perception and extend a little grace, knowing that we are more than just one experience or trait. 

We are not immune to bias in our lives, but as we have awareness and a desire to reflect on and expand our experiences, we can better mitigate the impact of bias. Recognizing our biases can move us out of our comfort zone, help provide a clearer direction and open opportunities to grow and develop. 

Jennifer Stangl is director of professional development at CUES.

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