We All Have Blind-spots. Leaders Have a Responsibility To Check Them
Discover How the S.P.A.R.K. Acronym Can Help You Lead With More Consciousness & Emotional Intelligence
In drivers education, one of the first lessons a new driver learns is about blind spots.
“Check my blind spots” becomes a mantra derived from the fear of impending disaster should you fail to check. Good drivers check blind spots as an intuitive, subconscious behavior developed out of repetition.
Developing new habits requires a commitment on action.
For example, if you are not a runner, but want to successfully run a marathon, you have to train. You think big, start small, and act now. Continuous actions, built upon over time, eventually creates habits. By the time the marathon has been completed, running is habitual.
Similarly, for adaptive leaders, there are certain habits that must be internalized if we want to be experienced as emotionally and socially intelligent leaders with a commitment to inclusion.
This is designed to be a conversation starter about unconscious biases and blind-spots for leaders and/or people committed to a diverse (multicultural, multigenerational, multiracial, etc.) team.
I hope that you recognize, given the sociopolitical landscape, there are extra layers of tension in the dynamics and relationships of our teams.
I believe that if we want to effectively engage the talents of our diverse communities, facilitate collaborative teams, and foster an environment that fuels productive change–it’s imperative that we have habits around checking our blind-spots.
This starts by accepting and acknowledging that we all have blind-spots.
Because my background and training as a leadership coach and facilitator is specifically in racial equity and inclusion, I see implicit biases as our greatest blind-spots in leadership.
Implicit biases are the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. (See more here) Unconscious and involuntary in nature, they often reflect cultural values from our upbringing rather than our current declared beliefs.
And these biases can often be expressed in ways that are at odds with our intentions or values.
In my work, I see the manifestation of unconscious biases in leadership practices and systems-design everyday.
To be clear, unconscious biases are the opposite of conscious, explicit biases. The important thing to note about unconscious biases is that they can be experienced as harmful, hurtful, and discriminatory (to say the least) by marginalized communities.
My friend and colleague Zaretta Hammond (the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain), recently reminded me of some important points, especially for Caucasions reading this: most “white” people have inherited a culture that’s individualistic (not collectivist like many Communities Of Color), which means that white people (like me) are prone to unconscious deficit ideologies that are experienced as micro-aggressions by People of Color. It’s important to name that, because misrepresenting or misidentifying implicit / unconscious biases is problematic.
So, for the sake of clarity, in this blog I refer to “blind-spots” interchangeably with “unconscious / implicit biases”. I am writing a much larger piece on this, but for now, consider these reflections the tip of the iceberg.
I believe that, as leaders, we must work intentionally and diligently to illuminate their existence–in service of having positive, productive relationships at work and home.
So let’s explore this topic a little more…
Developed from our tribal or herd mentality, implicit biases are mental constructs to keep us “safe”. Because stress activates the “fight, flight, or freeze” mechanism in our brain, the messages we’ve been exposed to–and internalized–throughout our life expose themselves under stress.
This topic is imperative to discuss now, because we are in a hyper-sensitive, emotionally-charged time. The presence of our president has amplified divisions in our country, and people are discussing racism, homophobia, prejudices, and bigotry in a much more open fashion than I’ve ever experienced.
Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we as leaders engage in deeper self-reflection, because biases and blind-spots will surface in our communication if we’re not intentional.
Exploring our blind-spots is important because our team depends on us to show self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and be inclusive in our language.
Leaders can’t afford to be experienced at odds with their intentions and core values. That’s how relational trust gets ruptured.
Here are some examples of how this plays-out:
If you say you are committed to diversity, and you want employees to feel seen, heard, and supported; however, in a moment of stress, your unconscious biases are alive and strong, your actions and words may not be experienced as inclusive.
Worst-case scenario: you unintentionally offend someone of a different background (race / gender / sexual identity / generation / body-type) on your team because of something you say or do.
The impact of that is significant: when employees feel betrayed or unrecognized at work, their neurological reaction is the same as being chased by a lion. David Rock wrote a fascinating article about the neuroscience of feeling left out. The result is unproductive for all parties involved.
Here are two more micro-examples of how my blind-spots showed up in my first year as a leader of a diverse team:
- In a meeting with my diverse team, I had closed off body language (arms crossed, leaned back) when a particular colleague spoke. My intention was not to portray negative energy, but my unconscious bias was in the driver’s seat.
- One of my African American colleagues raised his hand to speak up, and several white colleagues kept talking and either didn’t see OR ignored his nonverbal communication, and I did nothing to address the situation, because I also didn’t see his hand. My intention was to always facilitate open, liberatory experiences, but that was clearly not his experience. Thankfully my coach held up the mirror for me.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of implicit biases with well-intended colleagues and peers. For example:
I’ve been called “kid”, “young lady”, and “sweetie” by older men in professional settings more times than I can count on my two hands in this past year alone.
As a queer woman leader, I’ve had someone laugh in my face after I introduced myself as queer. I’ve been asked countless times about my “husband” or “boyfriend”, prior to sharing my sexuality.
Again, these are experiences and conversations with people who have positive intentions and claim to value inclusion.
I offer these real-life examples of blind-spots and biases playing out because I think it’s important to add texture to this conversation.
AND, even with training and expertise in this department, I will always be a work-in-progress, because uncovering unconscious biases as a leader is nuanced and multifaceted work.
I have always had a coach to offer me feedback and support, because I always want to be experienced as a leader who is reflective, self-aware, and someone who holds space for–and includes–all voices.
That’s how most of my clients feel as well.
For me, discovering the Stereotype Threat (here’s a quick informative video) engaged me in a different level of responsibility towards being more intentionally and mindfully inclusive too.
Why this matters:
If we, as a leaders, value inclusion and commit to honoring diversity, it’s imperative that we do intentional self-reflection so our implicit biases don’t show up and send messages that are at odds with our intentions or core values.
The last thing we want to do is unintentionally exclude individuals on our team. Many employees are conditioned/socialized to swallow their pain and keep moving forward, and therefore give a little less of themselves. You know how much one employee holding back can impact a team.
Just like in drivers-ed, we learn how to use mirrors to help us see in our blind spots.
In this case, our mirrors are our support systems.
It’s important that we all have people who care about and respect us enough to be our “mirror”. They can tell us the truth about the impact of our actions, communications (verbal and nonverbal), and our decision making.
In my leadership coaching programs, I support my clients by utilizing intentional tools and techniques, grounded in latest Emotional Intelligence frameworks/research, for intentional self-reflection–in service of igniting authentic and lasting inclusive conditions.
There are ways you can raise awareness of your blind-spots through intentional reflection. The S.P.A.R.K. Leadership Acronym helps us with that.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when reflecting on your blindspots.
- Slow down. Know thyself
- Biases and blind spots are more likely to be acted upon under stress, time-crunch, pressure, cognitive overload– Have I allowed myself space to pause and breathe?
- Am I aware of my own triggers?
- Pause and set intention
- What do I intend to give and get from this interaction?
- Am I listening with empathy and trying to put myself in their shoes?
- Ask yourself good questions and be courageously curious.
- What assumptions am I making right now?
- Am I suspending judgment and being open-minded?
- Am I showing curiosity or certainty about someone else’s experience?
- Respect Diversity & Connection
- Human contact matters–who’s not at the table?
- Whose point of view am I not paying as close of attention to?
- Am I exposing myself to as many perspectives as possible?
- Am I creating and seeking out different narratives (with non-stereotypic imaging)?
- Kindly expect tension and ambiguity
- Am I trying new processes and structures opens up new possibilities?
- Am I letting go of control and designing experiences that consistently lift up other points of view?
Now I don’t need to remind you that there’s no silver-bullet for lasting transformation. Just like becoming a better driver and internalizing new habits, we must practice frequently if we want to improve our emotional intelligence.
S.P.A.R.K. Leadership development experiences involve:
- Acknowledging and accepting unproductive mindsets and old patterns of behavior, raising awareness of blind-spots and biases that impact one’s leadership
- Interrupting those patterns by setting intentions and taking small steps to shift habits
- Embracing the unique strengths and assets that each leader has, which in turn helps them lead authentically with intentionality, conviction, confidence.
- Increasing comfort navigating the transitions, tensions, and complexities of their organization.
Curious to learn more?
- Check out my other blog on organizational blindspots here.
- Download our new S.P.A.R.K. Leadership Self-Assessment here
- Connect for virtual coffee with Rachel to learn more about how her coaching programs intentionally support leaders to reflect on their blind-spots here
I’d love to hear from you!
- Was there anything that resonated?
- Anything this blog sparked for you?
- OR, do you have favorite quotes/articles about blind-spots and biases?
Comment below and let me know!
- S.P.A.R.K. was founded in 2016 by Rachel Rosen, a seasoned facilitator, racial equity leadership coach, and LGBTQ advocate. S.P.A.R.K. offerings sit at the nexus of Rachel’s personal and professional passions, and she is on a mission to bring more empathy to the world, one conversation at a time. With a Masters from Stanford, and extensive training in leadership, coaching, team and organizational development, S.P.A.R.K. experiences are grounded in theory and practice. S.P.A.R.K. offers experiences that support leaders and teams to unleash their potential to facilitate powerful experiences, collaborate, and build trust.
PS. Fun fact: Did you know that we physically have blind-spots in our eyes? Basically it comes down to the structural makeup of our eyeball. If you don’t know much about this, there’s a really cool science experiment here.