As a leadership academic and professional, I have always been fascinated with what makes or breaks leaders. Bias specifically intrigues me. This is because, in 2013, I read an article by Carolyn Y. Johnson titled Everyone is biased: Harvard professor’s work reveals we barely know our own minds (Johnson, 2013).
This article was an interview with Professor Mahzarin R. Banaji who stated that we all have bias but that we can change or produce shifts in them. I found the conversation ironic because not only was the article discussing bias, but it became quite clear that the professor harbored her own bias, which ultimately impacted my perceptions regarding the perceived legitimacy of her claims. I eventually ordered Dr. Banaji’s book titled Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). However, the book left me with more questions than answers. My quest for understanding this interesting phenomenon has continued to this day.
It is generally known that bias can impact perceptions and behaviors because it can skew how we view events and data. This would undoubtedly impact decisions leadership would make as well as the perceived ability to lead. If that is true, then bias could have a dramatic impact on all things leadership, including long-term power.
Bias is the inclination for or against something that is often considered unfair, and it is a systematic distortion of a statistical result due to a factor not allowed for in its derivation (Oxford, 2019). Research has demonstrated that there are hundreds of different types of bias spanning almost all areas of life. It is clear and generally known that everyone harbors various types of bias at any given time. But how much does bias negatively impact our ability to lead effectively? Studies in this arena are surprisingly scarce, but there is data in a few studies that suggest that the impact is more significant than we might like to admit otherwise.
The following is a review of five such studies. Each study was explicitly geared towards a specific type of bias or included a strong element of bias examination regarding leadership. Each study provides incredible insight regarding how bias impacts various aspects of leadership.
This is not a comprehensive review of the multiple types of bias and their specific impact on leadership. Instead, this will be a mere demonstration that the issue exists and that further research is warranted. The information provided is themed by association.
Bias affects behaviors and perceptions, vision, communication of the vision, evaluations, organizational choices, overall legitimacy and the potential longevity of power. The findings are generalized but universal in that each form of bias has a strong potential to impact overall leadership negatively. It is then assumed that the case will hold true for other types of bias as well and that it behooves leaders to take this in to account and to not only seek to identify any bias they may have but also proactively attempt to temper any bias identified.
Bias Affects Behaviors and Perceptions
Bias can affect our behaviors in negative ways and contort our perceptions of what reality is. This can have systemic effects on us individually. As leaders, any such effect would then undoubtedly have an impact on the organizations and teams that we are a part of. Linková (2017) demonstrated this with a study on gender bias regarding leadership and decision making.
For example, Linková found that women researchers often hide their family commitments in an attempt to avoid bias. Ironically, the decision to do so was likely based on a bias and the result could have serious negative consequences. If for nothing else, the omission itself could be seen as lying.
Furthermore, the study showed that when women attempt to adopt traits that are not their own, such as behaviors typically associated with men, they are perceived as bossy, too assertive, competitive, and generally not likable (Linková, 2017). Leaders should take note that actions and decisions that are based on biased perceptions could impact not only the leader’s ability to lead but also the follower’s willingness or want to follow due to the result of the perceptions being formed regarding such acts. Clearly, this is not advantageous for either side.
Leaders must note that our interpretations regarding capabilities or roadblocks could be rooted in bias as well. Linková (2017) states that gender-stereotypical perceptions of women’s and men’s capacities often undermine a fair assessment regarding the ability to progress to positions of authority. These perceptions, either internal or external, either real or imagined, can hold an otherwise capable leader from gaining or seizing the opportunity to lead. For example, Linková (2017) found that women’s professional advancement can be directly affected by the perceived role incongruity between femininity and positions of power and leadership.
These types of biases are likely learned or programmed or stem from outdated stereotypes. Regardless, pretending to be something we are not or merely hiding something significant about ourselves is terrible for both the individual and the organization due to the potential fallout of what those beliefs or acts might bring. This is a powerful leadership lesson because it demonstrates that what we believe has a substantial impact on what we do, how we act in certain situations, and what we allow ourselves to pursue and accomplish. Ultimately, when we think that we have to be something other than what we truly are or act in ways that we would not normally act, we are essentially setting ourselves up for failure or disappointment.
Bias Affects Vision and Communication of the Vision
Leadership and vision go hand-in-hand. However, bias can, directly or indirectly, negatively impact both how visons are crafted and how visions are communicated. In a study examining vision communication, Carton and Lucas (2018) demonstrate that while it is crucial for leadership to communicate their visions, leaders tend to describe their visions with abstract rhetoric.
While somewhat indirect, this is due to “blurry vision bias,” and this stems from the fact that people tend to think abstractly when thinking about the distant future because the future is uncertain (Carton & Lucas, 2018). Ultimately, this means that since the future is not clear, leaders tend to shy away from using imagery when crafting their visions. Doing so can create a gap in communication regarding what is expected or what the outcome is supposed to look like. Followers need a clear understanding of what the result is supposed to look like in order to achieve the result. If the vision is not clear and not communicated in a way that followers can clearly grasp, the opportunity for failure is increased.
According to Carton and Lucas (2018), leaders can overcome this bias using vivid and specific projections regarding what they expect things to look like in the future. This helps both leaders and followers better visualize what the potential outcome is supposed to look like. To do this, leaders should draw from previous experiences and form a mental image of what could be and then relate the desired outcome to the vision they are trying to craft (Carton & Lucas, 2018). Then, the leader must simply create the imagery necessary. Carton and Lucas also suggest that leaders should share stories instead of values or traits and that being as specific as possible about what the outcome will look like will serve leaders well.
Leaders are keepers of the vision. So it is essential to expertly craft the vision and communicate it in ways that can be easily understood by the followers. Bias can impede that process significantly. However, by being mindful of the bias, a leader can overcome this common setback. As a result, leaders will see the achievement of their visions more consistently.
Bias Affects Evaluations and Organizational Choices
Bias plays a role in the accuracy of what we see, and as a result, it can affect the decisions we make or the information we share. In a study regarding performance measurements, Rothenberg (2017) demonstrates that bias can alter the accuracy of an actual performance either negatively or positively. This is important to note because this can directly impact our decisions regarding almost anything. Skewed information skews decisions and results. Of course, this is true for even the most simple of things, like promotions or how information is disseminated.
A great example of this might be in a friendship between a leader and an employee. In this situation, the leader has a higher chance of being biased regarding the employee’s work performance. Additionally, the accuracy of that employee’s self-evaluation would be harder to discern. As a result, the information regarding the actual performance would be contorted.
To overcome this, Rothenberg (2017) suggests that if we were to make a decision for our organization based on a specific performance measure, it would behoove the leader to acquire the necessary information from someone other than the one who is being measured. Rothenberg points out that bias affects the informativeness of the performance measure and that it is generally impossible for leaders to separate bias and accuracy. Rothenberg goes on to suggest that it can simply be too costly for firm owners to solicit productivity information from employees.
A simple demonstration of this might found by looking at a retail chain. If a CEO wanted to know how well a retail location was doing, they could ask the store leadership, ask the regional leadership, or they could look at the quantifiable data. Occam’s Razor would suggest that each of these will likely provide a slightly different story regarding store health and performance, with the store leadership being the most optimistic. This could be for any number of reasons, but generally speaking, those doing the work are likely going to have a higher opinion of the work they performed. Collaborative assessments that include outside parties can reduce the potential for this type of bias to skew the actual performance measurement.
Bias Affects the Legitimacy of the Decision
One of the most important things a leader must do is make decisions. Accurate information is critical to sound decision making and program design. Unfortunately, bias can have a significant impact on both. A brief example might be found in a study conducted by Schmidt and Pohler (2018) that examined selection bias in associations between high-performance work systems.
In that study, Schmidt and Pohler found that selection bias can influence the results of things like program design. Schmidt and Pohler also demonstrate that essential data such as reverse causality, omitted variables, and selection effects often go unchecked and that only limited conclusions can be drawn from studies that do not adequately address significant sources of bias. This is important to consider because having relevant information is critical in the decision-making process. If a leader’s bias keeps that leader from examining pertinent data or designing adequate programs, then a failure should be anticipated.
Another example might be how Schmidt and Pohler (2018) discovered that when leaders are asked questions about leadership, they will often think about or refer to themselves and their peers when answering such questions. This is insightful because it demonstrates a contortion regarding evaluation in that leadership is not always thinking about their people or in organizational terms.
Hence, any data pulled from such questions will be biased away from workers in general. This is an important reminder because a leader must be mindful of what is going to be best for the organization and the worker. That is not always an easy thing to do, and this especially true if we are not geared to think on that level.
Schmidt and Pohler (2018) suggest that bias can be a more serious problem than some researchers acknowledge. Schmidt and Pohler further demonstrate that something as simple as a leaders’ attitude or behavior can be an important omitted variable bias in much research. All of these are essential elements to consider regarding data collection because such data can have a dramatic impact on the decisions and programs being made. An examination of all pertinent data reduces these tendencies, but the addition of another perspective increases the chance for success and overall legitimacy.
Bias Affects the Potential Longevity of Power
Leaders must remember that they are only human. They must remain humble and not succumb to the pitfalls of perceived grandeur. Leaders and leadership professionals helping to develop future leaders must ensure that they provide this reminder to their students and mentees.
Fourie and Höhne (2017), support this idea in a study regarding heroic bias in transformational leadership theory by pointing out that even the most prized form of leadership isn’t without its shortcomings. They examined bias and leadership and pinpointed both “Heroic Bias” and “Self-Efficacy Bias” as potential negatives. Specifically, “heroic bias” regarding transformational leadership theory is at odds with the inevitability of human failure and because transformational leadership theory does not make provision for the inevitable moral or ethical and technical shortcomings of leaders (Fourie & Höhne, 2017). Fourie and Höhne go on to suggest that “heroic bias,” specifically, runs the risk of having disempowering effects on followers due to over-emphasizing the role of the leader. Essentially, the leader becomes the victim of his or her own perceived greatness.
Fourie and Höhne (2017) warn that idolizing leaders can be a strategy to cope with the fear of freedom, of guilt, and existential insecurity but that doing so can be a significant problem when the group’s expectation of a leader is to be faultless. Fourie and Höhne also warn that when followers overestimate the qualities of the leader, it can produce a distorted self-image of the leaders themselves. This is called “self-efficacy bias.”
A leader must go out of their way to remain humble due to the tendencies stated. An over-inflated sense of self is easy to come by when you are in charge, successful, and when your followers are continually pumping you up. Much of this is associated with ego. However, these types of bias can be a downfall as cracks in our perceived perfection are shown via our inevitable failures. History has shown that ego-driven failures often result in the ousting of leadership. Leaders can get in front of this by remaining humble and reminding followers that imperfection is normal and that perfection is neither being claimed or sought.
The literature has supported the idea that bias affects leadership but that the effects are often adverse. The research has also demonstrated that bias can often present itself in leadership in numerous different ways. We have seen that bias impacts our perceptions and behaviors and that our perceptions have a direct impact on the visions we construct. If bias has skewed our visions, it has the potential to impact what we want to accomplish because it can also skew the perceptions of what that accomplishment is supposed to look like. This can and often likely does turn into a missed objective.
Of course, bias impacts our decisions ranging from evaluations and overall organizational choices. This is because bias can contort the data we are reviewing and can undermine our efforts regarding decisions that need to be made and the programs we design. This, too, can have a direct impact on the legitimacy of our decisions and our expected outcomes.
Finally, and arguably one of the most critical elements of leadership, is our perceived ability to lead. Bias can impact this directly from all sides because if we are seen as biased in any number of ways, we run the risk of losing credibility and legitimacy overall. This can have a direct and extremely negative impact on our leadership and long-term power.
The information regarding the direct correlation between bias and leadership is scarce. The five studies provided only demonstrate a few of the many ways that bias can negatively impact leadership. However, they plant a clear red-flag regarding the topic and the need for future research. This is especially true considering the level of impact each can genuinely have.
There is plenty of room for research regarding exactly how bias impacts leadership and leadership development. Studies with an emphasis on the many ways that bias can undermine leadership is warranted and needed. Future studies should explore not only how bias can have an impact but also the types of bias that pose the biggest threat. Additionally, studies regarding techniques on how leaders can overcome bias as well as studies examining positive forms of bias would also be of great value.
Did you enjoy this article? You might also like my article titled “Beware of Self-Serving Bias.”
Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot hidden biases of good people. New York: Delacorte Press.
Carton, A. M., & Lucas, B. J. (2018). How Can Leaders Overcome the Blurry Vision Bias? Identifying an Antidote to the Paradox of Vision Communication. Academy of Management Journal, 61(6), 2106–2129. doi: 10.5465/amj.2015.0375
Fourie, W., & Höhne, F. (2017). Thou shalt not fail? Using theological impulses to critique the heroic bias in transformational leadership theory. Leadership, 15(1), 44–57. doi: 10.1177/1742715017730453
Johnson, C. Y. (2013, February 5). Everyone is biased: Harvard professor’s work reveals we barely know our own minds. Retrieved from https://www.boston.com/news/science/2013/02/05/everyone-is-biased-harvard-professors-work-reveals-we-barely-know-our-own-minds.
Linková, M. (2017). Academic Excellence and Gender Bias in the Practices and Perceptions of Scientists in Leadership and Decision-making Positions. Gender a Výzkum / Gender and Research, 18(1), 42–66. doi: 10.13060/25706578.2017.18.1.349
Oxford. (2019). Bias: Definition of Bias by Lexico. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/bias.
Rothenberg, N. R. (2017). Private Information, Performance Measurement Bias, and Leading by Example. Journal of Management Accounting Research, 29(1), 79–96. doi: 10.2308/jmar-51500
Schmidt, J. A., & Pohler, D. M. (2018). Making stronger causal inferences: Accounting for selection bias in associations between high performance work systems, leadership, and employee and customer satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(9), 1001–1018. doi: 10.1037/apl0000315