Recognizing when our unconscious personal bias is influencing how we perceive our leaders is crucial. Leah Parkhill Reilly of the Women of Influence Advancement Centre urges us to base judgment on facts rather than feelings, and stay on high alert for meaningless buzzwords.
by Leah Parkhill Reilly
When I was in corporate HR, we would conduct talent roundtables to assess the readiness of the next levels of talent to move forward in the organization.
I would occasionally hear the comment that “so-and-so” lacked “gravitas” and was not ready for the promotion or a more challenging assignment. Often, the person lacking “gravitas” was female and the individual who was providing the opinion was a male executive with many years of experience.
This is not to say that the opinion was unfounded, but when I would question the individual on tangible evidence of what “gravitas” looked like, and examples of when the person being assessed was found lacking, often they had nothing to share. It was purely a gut opinion with nothing to validate it. Occasionally, it was a comment that the person had heard through the corporate grapevine. Opinion had become fact, and actual evidence was no longer relevant. This admittedly was an extreme example, and thankfully didn’t happen on a regular basis ― but it did happen, and still does.
“Opinion had become fact, and actual evidence was no longer relevant.”
We are all susceptible to unconscious bias, and part of the work that I did was to be very aware of this bias in these settings. In another example, I encountered a leader who wanted to hold back on an assignment for a female colleague because he thought she was considering having children. His implicit association was that if you’re female, then you’re going to be the primary caregiver and thus would not be interested in the next level of leadership. Thankfully, the discriminatory view of this dinosaur did not stand, and the female colleague did receive the assignment.
If you’re curious about the concept of unconscious bias and implicit association, one of the best sites I can recommend for further exploration is Project Implicit and the associated Implicit Association Tests. Project Implicit is an international collaboration between researchers run out of Harvard. The focus is on understanding our own social cognition: the thoughts and feelings outside of our conscious control.
You can complete any number of tests ― on age, gender, sexuality, and race, all in connection to career and the workplace ― to better understand the hidden biases that might affect your own decision-making process. If you’re really keen, I’d also suggest reading Blind Spot, which dives deeper into the causes of stereotyping and discrimination.
This is the time of year when performance assessments have been completed, but soon enough, mid-year talent roundtables will begin and it’s important to have your own radar on alert for the buzzwords that are flung around. As strong leaders, it behooves us to dig into the comments and understand what lies beneath the surface.
If someone “lacks presence,” tell us an example of when this failing was observed, give a comparative example of what it should look like in the firm, or provide options for how that person can develop their “leadership presence.” We can’t just readily accept opinion without actual supporting evidence. Leadership comes in many shapes and forms, and we need to be aware of our own biases of what leadership “looks like” ― instead focusing on the actual work, and impact within the organization and beyond.
Leah Parkhill Reilly is a Women of Influence Advancement Centre expert and the owner of Parkhill Reilly Consulting. As a results-oriented human resources consultant, she has a proven track record of driving change across large, complex organizations specifically with regard to learning, development and organizational effectiveness. Leah has worked in a variety of industries including telecommunications, insurance and financial services. Her career experiences run the gamut from project management for systems implementation to human capital strategic planning.