Just Realized You’re Biased? Ask Madeleine

February 29, 2020 Madeleine Homan Blanchard


Dear Madeleine,

I am biased. I thought for the longest time that I wasn’t, but it has become clear to me that I am. I realize I am biased against certain types of people.

My biases are not traditional ones like race, gender, or age. I think I am mostly conscious and appropriate. What I recently realized is that I tend to discount people whom I see as overly invested in feelings and worried about how other people are going to feel. They just seem stupid to me, because all I see is what needs to be done. I just want to get on with things and let people get over themselves.

This bias has been pointed out to me—and as much as it galls me, I think it is true. I guess I’m going to have to do something about it. What would you recommend?


Dear Biased,

You’re not alone. We’re all biased. We can’t help it. Forget the biases we have against people who are different from us—get a load of some of the other unconscious biases we are dealing with:

Confirmation Bias. We seek evidence that supports what we already believe and ignore or discount evidence that does not fit. This goes a long way toward explaining political divides.

Temporal Discounting. We sacrifice long-term future outcomes for more immediate gains. We are driven by two asymmetries: more by negative vs. positive, and we value things that are close vs. far away. People are loss-averse—they are more likely to act to avert a loss or escape pain than to achieve a gain.

Illusion of Control. This is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events; for example, to feel a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence.

Planning Fallacy. This is a tendency for people and organizations to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have experience of similar tasks over-running.

Anchoring Bias. We rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. When we are in the midst of decision-making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor.

This is a very brief list, and each of these can happen before we even meet or need to work with people who are very different from us. So whatever work you have already done on being aware of and managing your own biases is a good thing.

I sought out La’Wana Harris, our resident expert on diversity and inclusion and author of many books including Diversity Beyond Lip Service, for her insights on this situation. Ms. Harris says: “You shouldn’t feel guilty about having biases. Everyone has bias as part of our cognitive response system to help protect us from danger. We need cognitive shortcuts to know when to heed our fight/flight instincts. Bias becomes problematic when based on erroneous thinking. Awareness is a good first step.

“The next step is to pay attention to what you may have thought, done, or said that triggered the behavior that betrays your bias. That way, you can build on your awareness to understand what triggers your bias reaction. Then, ask yourself ‘How does this affect how I show up? How does it keep me from being my best self?’ Finally, you can build some practices, habits, or rituals to support your best intentions.”

Sounds like good advice to me. La’Wana is a fellow coach as well, so it makes sense that she would have you ask yourself some good questions!

You say you are able to be conscious and appropriate with more traditional biases, so it might serve you to examine how you have done that. What habits or practices have you used in the past to help you? Here are a few ideas for creating potentially new habits:

Put yourself in a feeling person’s shoes. The commitment you have to being logical and forging ahead is just like a feeling person’s commitment to recognizing the emotional impact of decisions. You might be able to find some appreciation for how different the world looks to that person. To help, here are Brené Brown’s “Four Attributes of Empathy”:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it
  2. To be non-judgmental
  3. To understand another’s person’s feelings
  4. To communicate the understanding of that person’s feelings

For more on this, watch this lovely 3-minute video.

Consider a few things you feel strongly about. I guarantee there is something—what might it be? Then imagine what it would be like to apply that kind of energy to things that don’t seem to impact you.

Notice what happens to you physically when you get triggered—perhaps your muscles tense, you hold your breath, or your breathing becomes more shallow. Maybe you literally get hot under the collar. Once you recognize the signs, you can put yourself in a short “time out,” take deep breaths, and make a choice about how to respond. It’s much better to wait a moment and think things through than to watch yourself from the ceiling creating a problem.

Do you know anyone who is like you who is good at empathizing with those folks who are not? You might ask them how they manage themselves. Nothing like learning from a role model you respect!

Ask the people who have pointed out your bias for more detailed feedback on what you do that isn’t working, and for suggestions on what might work better. Outside perspective can almost always show you little things you hadn’t seen before.

Remember that all types of people bring value to the job of achieving big goals. Research shows that companies with the most diversity on their boards are the most profitable. The world is big, complicated place—and as Ken Blanchard likes to say, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” The combined wisdom of a diverse group will always be more powerful than just you alone.

I so appreciate that you are not only aware of your bias, but also willing to try to do something about it. Honestly, this is half the battle. You clearly have the intelligence and wherewithal to be a great leader for all types of people.

Finally, know that you are going to try—and fail—more than once. That’s okay. Do a personal after-action review and note where things started going wrong; then vow to do better next time.

Don’t give up, Biased. We need you as a force for good in the world!

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!


About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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