Unconscious bias, emotional intelligence and leadership

A guy in a suit runs from a tiny chicken, and the shadow of a giant predator.

“We see the world not the way it is, but the way we are” – Talmud

This ancient notion points to how unconscious or implicit biases arise. The strength of unconscious biases is it can help us think and make decisions quickly. The downside of unconscious or implicit biases is that they are unconscious and we do not know the extent of their impact on our thinking and decision-making. Once we become aware of them, we have more choice over their influence on us.

Biases are shortcuts for the mind which help us navigate complex social and emotional situations. Unconscious biases support our thinking as our brains are bombarded with far more information than we can possibly process. This is fortunate, because it allows us to function. Biases can also interfere with our ability to properly process information because previous experiences shape and bias how we perceive new situations.

“The impacts of cognitive bias can be mitigated by working on our emotional intelligence skills.” – David Cory  Tweet This!

Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychology professor has been studying how minds operate in social contexts for thirty years. She and two colleagues, Anthony Greenwald and Brian Nosek created the Implicit Association Test. Dr. Banaji said she felt “humiliated” to learn about her own unconscious biases. I encourage everyone to try it for themselves.

Unconscious biases are often referred to as cognitive biases. The use of the word cognitive suggests that biases are errors in information processing. When we take a closer look at each of the following biases, it is clear that emotions are both the basis of, and the solution to, many of these cognitive biases.

Some implicit biases can interfere with the effectiveness of leaders we encounter in our emotional intelligence/leadership courses and our coaching practice. Let’s look at a few common cognitive biases.

Three common kinds of bias

Conformity bias is the tendency to change our thinking to more closely align with the thinking of others and is a form of unconscious bias. In his clever experiment, Solomon Asch, 1951, was able to use a group to influence individuals to change their answer to a simple test based on learning how others answered. 75% of the test subjects changed their answer. This experiment was repeated several times with the same results each time.

This kind of conformity bias can affect leaders who second-guess themselves when others have a different opinion about a decision. They appear less independent and appear to lack confidence in their own values and principles.

Another common type of bias is affinity bias, in which we feel more warmly toward someone based on a shared affinity. In leadership terms, a leader might favour a direct report because they went to the same college. One risk here is that the perception of unfairness can erode the trust that other team members have in their leader.

Fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias, influences our judgement of others. Attribution error illustrates how we account for our own mistakes by pointing to situational factors. But we judge the mistakes of others based on their disposition or nature. For example, a leader may label an employee as uncommitted, when in fact they may be dealing with family issues that are not within their control. In this case, FAE would unconsciously bias the leader toward making an error in judgement which could lead to inappropriate interventions.

Confronting cognitive bias with the EQ-i 2.0 by MHS Assessments

How can we be more aware of these biases so we can become more intelligent and intentional moving forward? The answer lies in one of the world’s leading models of emotional intelligence originally created by Dr. Reuven Bar-On and now the basis for the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-I 2.0) from MHS Assessments, a Toronto, Ontario based company.

The multiple scale model of the EQ-i 2.0.
Five composite scale, fifteen subscale model the EQ-I 2.0.

The fifteen subscales, also referred to as EQ competencies, form the foundation of human behaviour. Improving this foundation can increase the effectiveness of all other endeavours and relationships, including leadership effectiveness.

How emotional intelligence assessment and development can help mitigate cognitive bias

EQ competencies offer significant assistance to minimize the effect of unconscious bias. For example Emotional Self-Awareness helps us to become aware of the conscious and unconscious biases. Once we become aware of our biases, we are able to change, thus reducing the negative impact of our biases.

Assertiveness helps us to speak up about what we become aware of and to engage in a dialogue with others regarding their conscious and potential unconscious biases.

Independence assists us to be less affected by conformity bias and allows us to act more consistently with our own opinions, values and thoughts.

Empathy helps us to tune in to the feelings of others and to better understand how our behaviour may affect others. When we become attuned to how we impact others, we become more motivated to recognize and minimize the effects of unconscious bias.

Problem Solving includes emotions with cognition so we are in a better position to be aware of how our inclination to conform with the opinions of others, the desire for affinity with others, or the risk of allowing attribution errors affect our decisions.

Become an exceptional leader

The women who join our course have one thing in common – they want to become exceptional leaders.

Reality Testing is the main EQ competency required in confronting our unconscious biases. We test our perceptions of reality by checking with others, looking for evidence, and attempting to diversify the information and messages we rely on to assess reality.

Impulse Control, or the ability to manage our first thoughts or actions, helps to avoid reliance on stereotypes and quick decisions. Applying EQ competencies, taking our time, putting in the effort to consider the information, facts and impacts on others can reduce or minimize the effects of bias created by first impulses.

Finally, Flexibility is an important skill that helps us consider a number of alternative approaches and options rather than relying on our usual or typical methods. Flexibility allows us to embrace other perspectives and approaches, and ensures that we reach the best decision.

One pathway to mitigating unconscious bias is through understanding and developing emotional intelligence competencies. Leaders can take the online EQ-i 2.0 or the EQ 360 and assess both their EQ strengths and their unconscious biases. We all carry biases, but we can take steps to reduce or minimize the effects of unconscious bias on important decisions and thinking when the stakes are high at work and in our personal lives.

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