Most organizations I work with believe they are harbingers of objective meritocracy – with one major exception: the individuals inside those organizations that know they’ve been screwed over. And at some point or another, that will mean just about all of us.
We know we don’t consciously hold or act on our biases. We’d like to believe we don’t have them. And all of us expend a lot of energy to convince ourselves and others that this is so. (For an in-depth explanation on this topic, watch social psychologist Jonathan Haidt here: http://bit.ly/z9seKN
In spite of our best intentions, our biases exist, and they continue to do insidious harm in the workplace. Studies continue to validate what we already know: when it comes to hiring, paying and promoting people, it’s rarely objective.
Here are three situations where I often see it played out:
The new boss
One of my coachees recently experienced a classic scenario:
A successful executive, well-rewarded for the past 15 years, is suddenly on the wrong side of the bias fence. His new boss has a new regime in mind, and he’s not one of her inside players.
But the boss can’t say this out loud. Instead, she sets up a double-bind where he can’t possibly win. They agree he will coach and develop his under-performers – two people he inherited and would never have selected (sound familiar?). Their performance is hurting the team’s overall ranking, and he’s been told he must get rid of them by year’s end as part of the company’s forced ranking performance system. This places him squarely in a values dilemma: “How do I authentically coach these people through a development plan knowing I’ll be cutting them loose before they have time to show improvement?”
Meanwhile, his low team numbers are being used against him as his boss reworks her leadership team, even though there’s acknowledgement that he’s doing all he can under the circumstances to correct the inherited issues.
My hunch? His team numbers are irrelevant. She decided early that she wanted him out. Everything else becomes just a means to remove him from the team without any negative legal implications.
I suspect she feels she’s being completely objective in the process. As does he. Neither one of them would readily see the biases they both bring to their dynamic.
Yep, it’s alive and well. In spite of all the systems we set up to make pay, promotion and performance ratings look equitable, they just aren’t. And women leaders fully participate. A recent study from the Harvard Business Review gives us yet another glimpse into what we already know: http://bit.ly/GCQ3h3
There are lots of ways we unconsciously compete and try to ensure our own organizational survival. We’ve gotten especially good at working the data so we feel we’re being fair and logical – even collaborative. It’s hard to recognize when decisions are becoming biased. It’s even harder to choose to point it out, especially when you’re part of the decision making group. It takes self-aware insight, and courage.
Peers that don’t like you
Okay, this can just get ugly. Just because we walk around in adult bodies doesn’t mean we left our junior high school selves behind.
It’s the little insinuation here, the questioning of skill there – those unexpected drill-down questions in front of senior managers meant to trip you up. The ones that could have been asked when you met with the person beforehand to review the presentation. Yea, that stuff.
What’s happening? Just the age-old attempt to diminish others, with a hope that it will somehow elevate the person doing the detracting? While most of us see through the most obvious examples of this, it’s not always so clear and straightforward. I’ve had countless coachees question their own sense of what’s going on: “I know it sounds like I’m being paranoid, but it sure feels like… ”
Since most of the people I work with are high-functioning, non-paranoid adults (as far as I can tell, anyway), together we follow their intuitive hunch to see if we can gain more clarity about what’s going on. We also seek to find more effective ways to interact with their detractor.
This leads us to the most important questions:
When is the detractor YOU? What can you do to make yourself more conscious of your unwitting biases? And in what situations are people trusting you most to uphold an objective meritocracy? How can you operate within this system at the highest levels of integrity and awareness?