By Holly LeMaster

Our current environment of divisiveness, controversy, disinformation, and uncertainty can make it extremely difficult to lead others–especially groups or teams who may have wildly different beliefs and perspectives. We may be confronted with mediating a lack of respect, heightened emotions, and hurt feelings. How are we to lead others through these complexities to understanding and appreciation?

This is clearly a complex question with no simple solution. But a good place to begin is close to home, with our own emotional intelligence and personal accountability. We must first be able to see, acknowledge, and manage our own mental models and biases–to check whether unconscious beliefs are getting in the way of our ability to lead from a neutral and fair position.

So let’s pause for a moment to think about our thinking. Our mental models are distinctly our own–as personal and unique as our fingerprints. While each of us may share certain values, perspectives, or opinions with other individuals or groups, every human has a wholly unique comprehensive worldview shaped by our lived experiences over the course of a lifetime. 

We are influenced by:

  • Our ancestral DNA
  • Family of origin
  • Religious and spiritual indoctrination
  • Every teacher, partner, friend, foe, and acquaintance
  • Media, advertising, and social media
  • Place and environment 
  • Socioeconomic and educational opportunities
  • Health and physical abilities or limitations

And so much more.

It is easy to assume that others see the world in the same way that we do. And even when we intend to be empathetic and understanding, we can never truly know what it is like to live in someone else’s life. 

If someone asked you to describe your biases, you might be quick to say (and genuinely believe), “Who, me? I’m not biased!” But the truth is that, because we are human, we have biases. It is simply a question of what they are and whether or not we are aware of them.

Now, bias–in and of itself–is not bad. It is quite simply a preference for one thing over another. For example, I may have a bias toward strawberry ice cream over chocolate. The problem comes in when our biases are running the show in our subconscious mind and we’re not even aware that it’s happening. This is what the term unconscious bias, or implicit bias means. 

We can really get ourselves into trouble when we act on unexamined beliefs that may not be serving us well and are impacting our relationships with others, as illustrated below. 

For example, following the model in the graphic, let’s say I hold an unconscious bias or belief that sounds in my head (because I would never say it out loud!) something like, “Older employees are bad at using technology and will slow us down.” Then I may act out of that belief with behavior such as using condescending language with an employee and over-explaining to them when it comes to learning a new program. That behavior impacts my relationship with the employee–they become fearful of me and excessively cautious about making a mistake. The result is that their work takes longer to complete and slows down the team’s progress, thus reinforcing my original belief. 

If we find ourselves experiencing a pattern of unhealthy or frustrating situations, we may need to take a look at our own beliefs or the stories we’re telling ourselves. And chances are, those beliefs may be driven by implicit biases. 

If you’re curious about your own implicit or unconscious biases, here’s a terrific resource that can be sobering and eye-opening: Project Implicit. Here you can engage with a series of implicit bias tests pertaining to everything from race to weight to weapons and learn more about yourself.

Increasing our self-awareness takes courage and vulnerability. And it is through this lens that we are more deeply prepared and empowered to help individuals and teams illuminate their own perspectives and beliefs. Once we are aware, then we can act. Bringing the unconscious up to consciousness, shining a light on it, and examining it, creates the possibility of intentionally choosing healthier and more harmonious behaviors.