Bias Busting—Two Essential Things Women Can Do Now to Get More Opportunities

Will Marré

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One thing is for sure; if you are a woman, or communicate like one, you are not getting the opportunities you deserve.

The research on the implicit or invisible bias is crystal clear. As Michael Lewis's new book, The Undoing Project, tells us our brains are designed to work in a web of emotional shortcuts. Our brains are designed for efficient thinking and quick judgments. Most of us spend little time in deep thought—either critical or reflective thinking. And it's getting worse.

Social media researchers tell us the average American looks at their smartphone 200 times a day. We're not doing it to read philosophy. Instead, we're shortening our attention spans and increasing the likelihood of making snap judgments. This makes us biased.

This problem directly affects you at work. I am now working with several companies on the problem of workplace bias. One CEO recently told me that although they have installed virtually every diversity-promoting policy devised by experts they still find that the promotion pipeline for women stalls out from undervalued women exiting the company after five years of employment. He's not alone. Most diversity-promoting programs are not resulting in women being promoted at faster rates to higher positions. New research from the University of Rochester is informing us as to a root cause. And it's something that you can control.

More and more researchers believe that the impact of invisible bias on daily work opportunities is the root cause of why women (and men who communicate like women) get fewer opportunities and get stuck in middle management. Bias has powerful effects because it is manifest with the assigned
tasks.

It's not the big moments that crush your advancement; it's the daily downgrading of your opportunities to take more important responsibility. Succeeding with high-impact tasks earn you opportunities. But getting the important tasks assigned to you can be powerfully limited by workplace bias. Ask yourself, how much responsibility are you being given with tasks or job assignments that have critical business impacts?

We aren't guessing about this anymore. McKinsey research reveals that women are systematically given fewer high-impact opportunities and fewer high-risk challenges, which results in a much lower rate of promotion. And now we think we know the root cause.

Behavioral economists at the University of Rochester who studied this concluded that the primary reason bias is so powerful is because of the way managers act on their bias daily. It is by choosing to work closely with people who seem to think like themselves and communicate similarly. It's called the "mirroring effect." We tend to trust and enjoy working with people who think and communicate like us.

The practical impact of this preference is called "communication efficiency." Nearly all of us have the same tendency. We are delighted when we meet people who seem to understand what we are saying and what we mean. When we fall in love, we often tell our friends "They get me." What this means is that you have harmonious communication styles. That's all great except for the fact that typical male work style communication differs from typical female work style communication.

Men: competitive, direct, authoritative, binary, linear

Women: collaborative, inclusive, flexible, holistic, systemic


In authoritarian business structures, male managers tend to be binary thinkers (either/or) who are action driven. People who quickly get ahead tend to exude confidence, ask for responsibility, and verbally minimize obstacles. This all sounds good until you realize none of those behavioral factors correlate with successful management or leadership. Nevertheless, these characteristics establish a cultural bias that favors these largely alpha male attributes.

What hurts women in their ambition to be chosen for important tasks and high-impact job assignments are their strengths. Women's brains are wired to connect daily decisions to the big picture. It's called contextual intelligence. It makes women more inquisitive about unintended consequences, interactive effects, and undiscussed impacts on customers or employees. Women also tend to have higher operational intelligence, which makes for a more realistic perspective about the time, money, and resources needed to achieve goals.

I characterize these two approaches to work as Fast versus Wise.

Men who are fast thinkers are naturally biased to work with other fast thinkers. Answering all the questions posed by a "wise thinking" colleague slows the action down, which is emotionally frustrating. Men frequently characterize their frustrations in communicating with women as a "hassle factor."

So women are often unconsciously not chosen with the excuse being "They aren't quite ready." Lack of readiness is a code term for "I don't want to invest the energy to work with her" because of the psychic costs of communication inefficiency.

What Not to Do

Don't try to shame men into working with you because of their bias. This increase is likely to heighten their bias. In fact, bias training has proven to have almost no effect on bias behaviors. Instead, many people become more articulate at self-justifying their biases. I know—stupid, but true.

So it's time to break some glass in workplaces that are systematically biased against wise action versus fast action. (Even in bureaucratic, risk-averse cultures, the biggest rewards go to the most decisive individuals who quickly decide the best course is to do nothing.)

What to Do

The two things you can do right now that are proven to overcome bias by increasing your communication efficiency are learning how to drive decisions, and advocate for solutions. I call it SMART Communication because it will both lower the impact of bias and increase your influence. This is your path to greater opportunity.

Drive Decisions

A major key to being seen as a leader is your ability to drive decisions. The stereotyping of women labels their drive for collaboration and consideration of unintended consequences as unnecessary "slowdown tactics" to avoid taking risks.

This tactic, of course, amplifies "communication inefficiency" bias that leaves women out of opportunities they should have. These three proven "mind tricks" will help you drive decisions without being too "pushy." (Which cause alpha males to push back.)

Be Direct

Don't hide your best judgment behind the question. Don't say, "Do you think we should add Susan to the team?" Do say, "I strongly recommend we add Susan to the team because she has valuable experience with this client." The key to directness is asking for what you want, and stating the reason why you want it. You mute your voice when you only suggest what you hope for through a question.

Assume Agreement

If you have a good idea, state it without tagging a question on the front of your good idea.

Avoid saying, "Do you think we should get the customer on the phone?" Rather, say, "Let's get the customer on the phone." (See how this is more efficient communication?) Asking for an agreement creates an unneeded discussion. Instead, you could already be dialing.

Be Internally Positive Rather Than Defensive

If you hold positive expectations about your ability to influence, you can be assertive with a smile and maintain your natural warmth. You can be strong if you are also warm. Don't give up at the first sign of resistance. You're smart. You know what to do. Persist.
That's a secret to being a powerful woman leader.


Now if you want to accelerate your career do this . . .

Advocate a Solution

Greatness comes from getting others to support solutions that you believe in. Again, behavioral economists tell us how. It's the "Goldilocks" presentation method. You take control of the decision by presenting three options that you carefully considered till you finally settled on the right one.

Option one is the least risky. It requires only a small investment but has little possibility of a home run. This investment is why you inform decision makers, and you discarded it as a wise choice. Option two is the overly-aggressive option. It is risky, takes a big investment but shows that you think big.

This option should always be beyond what you think the decision makers are willing to do. Be passionate about its possibilities but analytical as to its risks. Again, inform the decision-makers that you discarded this option because of its cost and risk.

Third, present the "Goldilocks-just right" option. This is the option you advocate. It has to be bold enough to have an impact and have measurable milestones. Show your thought process and analytical muscle. Advocate strongly and warmly for your desired option. Neuroscience tells us that most people will support the "just right" option if framed between a small hop and a giant leap.

These two techniques have helped many people that I've coached become viewed by senior executives as having "high potential." So try them out in the next 24 hours and see for yourself.

The Bottom Line

Nearly all workplaces are biased against the strengths of women because it takes too much effort for ambitious, analytical males to answer all your wise questions.

If you make these behavioral strategies your daily method of making your difference in your workplace, you will get noticed, and you'll be rewarded with more responsibility.

If it does not, you must leave because you work for dunderheads.

Will

P.S. If you want to learn how to implement these skills as well as increase your confidence, career clarity, and increase your impact, please join me at my WE-Women Effect workshop on February 28 in La Jolla California. Learn more and register here.

Will Marré (rhymes with "Hooray!") is the co-founder and former president of the Covey Leadership Center which brought The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to millions worldwide. Will's focus was on developing Smart Power leaders through his Smart Power Institute. The Institute is research-based and develops thinking tools, behavioral skills, and leadership practices necessary to be effective in the new disruptive economy. Smart Power is based on gender synergy—how men and women can use gender-based strengths to lead and work together to multiply positive results. Will was a highly-requested speaker and trusted advisor on corporate transformation, women's leadership, and igniting innovation.

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