Monday, August 01, 2016

The Rage of Bias and the Hard Work to Tame It

What does it take to be a great leader?

I have been fascinated with this question since my teen years. But, I had no clue about the origins of greatness and how one becomes “great”.  I knew intuitively though that some people well-known and unsung rose above the fray to lend morale support and guidance during good times and bad times. How come?

During the start of my career as a clinical dietitian and public health nutritionist, the mystery deepened because I could not understand why some people enthusiastically and diligently scooped up my expert advice on lifestyle change, but most did not. Was there a connection to my enduring question about greatness? This time though it was about me. My efforts were hit and miss. My quest became more serious. The “eye of the beholder” mystery deepened.

Warmth Matters as a Start

An experience in one of my leadership development classes illustrates our collective struggle at recognizing greatness. The task was to rate various leaders on “warmth” and “competence”. Across most cultures, but not all, we are drawn to “warm” leaders, like a moth attracted to light. Such leaders connect well with people, we intuitively trust them. “Competence” stills matters such as appropriate expertise, follow through and getting things done. According to Harvard’s Amy Cuddy and others, warmth is the “conduit of influence”.

As I passed one group wrestling with Justin Trudeau’s warmth level, a female millennial made a face and exclaimed, “I can’t stand Justin Trudeau”! She could give me no reason. That’s how she felt, full stop. This was a visceral response that surprised me as her classmates overall gave Mr. Trudeau a seven to eight out of 10 for warmth. On competence, Prime Minister Trudeau faired less favourably because his track record is still in the making. But, not surprisingly, she and her group, as well as the class as a whole, gave Nelson Mandela top marks for warmth and competence. Was it because we know more about Mandela, his struggles and eventual redemption - the whole story?

Warmth and Competence Matter in the Long-Run

Stories are still in the making during the marathon race for becoming the next president of the United States. The debate around the world is palpable. Hillary Clinton, despite her considerable track record of achievement (competence), elicits vitriolic loathing among a sizeable portion of Americans, many with legitimate concerns about their well-being opportunities. Her likeability level (warmth) is more or less tied with Donald Trump’s – both low. Why? Well, “she’s cold”, “can’t trust her” and so on.  When asked to explain, people’s voices trail off or they name the recent email scandal or some other situation about which she was investigated for the nth time in her lengthy career. 

For many, the jury’s out on Trump too, particularly his competence. His extreme views on how to govern a liberal democracy and his tendency to be self-aggrandizing are concerning in a world where collaboration more than ever before is required. Throughout history great discoveries and innovations have almost always resulted from a process of working together. Winning wars too depends on a network of partnerships. “Liking” each other” is not always possible. The shared goal though is what matters.

Bias Can Mess Us Up or Grow Leadership Greatness

What’s going on?  It’s complicated. It’s always in the eye of the beholder. Many factors come into play, typically below our awareness:

It’s a social, it’s about survival – when we view another as “warm”, that can mean he or she cares about us, has our back, pays attention to the issues that are holding us back, will keep us safe, make our lives better. Trump seems to be hitting that note with his supporters. But so is Hillary among hers. The lines are blurred here. The truth is elusive.

It’s tribal like in-group/out-group – we effortlessly relate to people like us. It is harder to embrace and include someone we don’t know, who is different, who challenges our beliefs, what we think we know. That elicits fear for our well-being and can be an affront to our identity. 

It’s linked to family upbringing – political ideology, and the values it espouses, is strongly influenced by our parents, grandparents, teachers, and where we grew up.  

It’s an automatic emotional response – instead of treating ourselves as ongoing growing experiments, we default to just “believing” what we think and “know”. A person, data or a situation generates a response, negative or positive, outside the context of critical thinking. We made a decision a long time ago about these and they have been encoded in our minds as reaction recipes. While many of these recipes help us navigate life on a daily basis, thus are helpful and good, with the changing world, others are in need of scrutiny. Not all of us embrace the rigor of challenging what we know as do, for example, scientists and others undertaking research.

Openness Can Tame Blind Bias

Then, how do we square reality a bit better instead of staying stuck, even if we are not researchers? How do we get beyond “the rage of bias”? How do we tame it so we don’t block progress in our personal greatness journey?

There is one way that can give greatness a boost toward fact-checking what we automatically see. Dale Carnegie’s book on “How to Win Friends and Influence People” alludes to it – "be interested rather than interesting". 

MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland and many collaborators have corroborated Carnegie’s observations naming the concept as “social physics” and the top skill as “social sensitivity”. High performing teams are very good at this. The personality trait individually and collectively is “openness”. The process is one of respectful, equal opportunity debate that challenges us to examine our assumptions.

Taming the rage of blind bias is hard work. Without feedback from others, blindness can persist. With others who see reality through a different lens, we can test out the validity of what we know and believe. We can open our minds and mindsets to an information flow that might shed more light on reality.

When We Know Another Better, Blind Bias Has Less of a Chance to Rage

Globally, we are witnessing the difficulty of the hard work of reality-checking as the United States’ electorate ponders the nation’s next commander-in-chief.  People are working out their thinking, their views of each candidate to lead nationally and internationally. They are becoming more aware of Senator Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s personal and professional stories past and current. As a result, voters’ clarity of judgment has a chance to emerge with a more nuanced foundation. In turn, seeing greatness in a new light may have a chance.