A colleague and I were at a publishing conference. We were attending a session on how to be a more effective writer.
“Schedule time every week for serendipity,” advised one of the session panelists. “If you schedule time for serendipity, you’ll make it happen. If you don’t, it won’t; and your skills won’t improve.”
“Did she say to schedule serendipity?” I whispered to my colleague.
How ridiculous, I thought even though I’ve been the beneficiary of accidently tripping into discoveries. Despite my past good fortune, the speaker’s counsel troubled me. From my perspective, there was absolutely no way to schedule a fortunate accidental discovery—serendipity just happened. Right?
Curious about maybe having missed a nuance in the definition of serendipity, I did some research. I hadn’t missed anything.
Author Horace Walpole invented the word serendipity in 1754. A Persian fairy tale, The Princes of Serendip, had been his inspiration. In the fairy tale, three princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”
That confirmed my belief the speaker had it all wrong. Sadly, I mocked her advice on several occasions.
Shame on me.
And for that, I got my comeuppance.
I was doing online research about dogmatism for my book. I’d just read the definition of dogmatism, a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises, when the aha zap happened.
My reaction to the speaker’s words about scheduling serendipity leapt into mind.
Ewww. It hurt to see it and to say it, but I’d been dogmatic. I’d been that person; the narrow-minded one I criticize when I see people acting the same way I had.
I’d blindly accepted as fact that my belief that it was impossible to schedule serendipity without examining her meaning. I had heard her words, interpreted them with my dogmatic filters, and outright rejected her position.
Shame on me again. Her advice wasn’t wrong, it was flat out brilliant.
In a time-starved world where there’s a plan and time slot for everything, it’s pure genius to leave time open for spontaneity. Time to think, daydream, be. Time for accidental discoveries to happen.
Of course, you can’t will the eureka moment to happen in those moments. However, making time to reflect increases the odds of creativity, inspiration, and innovation happening.
That’s what the speaker had meant. She was telling us to avoid the tunnel vision that comes from having an over-packed schedule and too much to do. She was telling us to make room for unpredictability and possibility.
*big sigh* How could I have been so dogmatic, so obtuse, so blind?
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has an answer for us.
He says it’s incredibly difficult for us to see our own biases. We can easily point to them in other people, but not so much for ourselves.
Fortunately for me, a research aha moment rescued me from my blindness.
I both love and abhor my personal teachable moments. Love them because new paths are revealed, abhor them because I need them in the first place.
Perhaps I’d better start scheduling them in my calendar.
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When I was growing up, my mom told me I needed to be a good girl in life and doing that meant following a few simple rules. One of those rules was to never talk about myself or money. Never, ever. She said good girls just don’t do the self-promotion thing because talking about what you’ve accomplished is bragging and talking about money is impolite.
I listened to my mom, so do other women. 61% of women in a study said they would prefer to discuss the details of their own death than to talk about money.
In another study, 76% of executive women said it was difficult for them to draw attention to their accomplishments.
Brothers hear their moms say these things to their sisters but not to them, so they carry these socially approved notions—OK for boys to do it, not OK for girls—with them into the workplace.
Some women don’t ask for the raise or higher starting salary and receive neither. Other women do talk about their accomplishments and are branded as selfish, non-team players. Business women are caught in the crossfire between social conditioning, stereotypes, unconscious bias, and leadership norms.
One element of that nasty crossfire is the double standard—women who behave in a manner more expected of a man are criticized when men aren’t. Women should care for others and not themselves. That man understands his worth.
Another element is how people evaluate us is by our accomplishments, successes, abilities, and potential. If business women aren’t providing that narrative, people draw unflattering or incomplete conclusions about our abilities or fail to give us credit for them.
And yet another is a lack of critical thinking and curiosity. Paola Sapienza, professor Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, points out that “men tend to overstate how well they do relative to women. And the people who are making the decisions after hearing everyone speak tended to take most people’s statements at face value. You’d think that people would discount what men say somewhat and inflate what women say about themselves. But in reality, they didn’t do that.”
The bottom line impacts of all these elements?
- Bosses criticize women for playing against social expectations of being modest when they ask for a raise.
- Bosses bypass women for opportunities because it’s assumed they have no achievements because they haven’t talked about them.
Business women can circumvent the crossfire and begin to change social norms about women talking about their accomplishments by doing four things.
4 ways for women to bypass the barriers to effective self-promotion
First, women have to get right with their own reservations about talking about their accomplishments and give themselves permission to do so.
From all those years of “good girl” messaging, I thought talking about my achievements was bragging, and I didn’t want to be that icky person who was always talking up what they’ve done and how wonderful they are. I had to learn a couple of things before I could get past that line of thinking.
- Bragging and self-promotion are two totally different actions. One is a social turn-off; the other is a leadership skill.
- Bragging is “me-focused.” I landed the big account; I was the one who convinced the boss to change his mind, I did all the work on that project.
- Self-promotion is me-sharing-how-I-can-serve-you; it’s “we-focused,” and it’s a valuable leadership skill.
Second, women accept that talking about their successes and skills is a just another part of being an effective leader. It’s also a way for women to change the social norms that say women who talk about their performance are being immodest.
“Self-promotion is a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well.” ~Clay Shirky, NYU professor
Until people begin “discounting what men say and inflating what women say about themselves,” women telling their story isn’t optional; it’s mandatory.
I had a hard time getting my mom’s voice out of my head when it came to talking about myself. Then I learned about the smorgasbord of opportunities in which I could share my expertise and accomplishments and not come across as the braggart beating his chest.
Consider these avenues of action. You can:
- Write an article for the company newsletter or blog in which you share a story about a skill and a success it brought you and how others might benefit from doing the same.
- Teach a workshop to share a skill. Be a mentor.
- Send short emails or texts to the boss about a successful outcome, just want to let you know that blah-blah good happened.
- Speak up in meetings.
An important part of getting good with this skill is learning to take the praise when it’s offered and not attribute the positive outcomes to luck.
Third, women frame the story they tell about themselves to include both their performance and their potential.
- The business world evaluates men on potential, women on performance. Until there are enough women in senior positions to change that orientation, business women have to own closing the gap.
- Because most people don’t make the automatic leap we hope they will, we have to do it for them and say things like, with help from my talented team, I made our department the highest performing one in the company. I’d like the opportunity to do the same with the northeast division.
A study conducted by Catalyst, an international nonprofit focused on advancing women, found that women who consistently made their achievements known did better than women who didn’t.
This both/and approach is a way to bridge existing social expectations and ultimately change social norms. In interviews, meetings, and other venues, we bridge social bias by talking with grace about our past performance, future potential, and how the organization benefits by what we do.
Fourth, women support other women who are learning to get comfortable with self-promotion.
This support is crucial—it helps to make it OK for women to talk about themselves and their accomplishments and not feel like they are doing something wrong when they’re really doing something right.
This support can take lots of forms.
- It may mean gently reminding a male colleague how men receive accolades (and promotions and raises) when they talk about themselves, so let’s be fair and do the same for women.
- It may mean coaching a female colleague to get go of her fear and talk to her boss about her achievements while asking for a raise.
- It may mean asking a colleague to support us as we bravely apply for the job we really, really want, even if a few performance gaps exist.
Take the leap with knocking knees and courage
Despite what our moms may have taught us, we have to learn to be fearless and go for it because self-promotion matters.
So do we.
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Hubby was peeved with me.
I couldn’t answer his question about whether or not our yard waste that was piled by the curb had been picked up.
“You went out to get the paper,” he said. “How could you not notice?”
Not noticing had been easy. The early morning air was fresh. The sky full of sun and frothy clouds. The fushia crepe myrtle blossoms luscious. An egret was looking for breakfast in the pond across the street. A writing assignment was due in two days. There was that choppy section of content in my leadership workshop that needed smoothing out. I needed to rework the overview section of my book proposal. I wanted another cup of coffee. Yard waste wasn’t anywhere near my radar screen.
There was the day when I would have fired off a snarky retort, Come on, yard waste? I have more important things on my mind. But that was before I learned about confirmation bias, the power of curiosity, and the magic of patience and acceptance.
Growing to the point where I could calmly and nondefensively answer, “Sorry, lovey. I wasn’t paying attention,” had taken a long time and lots of work. Too many gumdrops, too.
A few years earlier, I felt defensive a lot and puzzled, too, that people weren’t see events as clearly as I believed I was seeing them. Differences of thought, opinion, and perspective were causing friction in relationships. The final straw came after reconnecting with someone from my past whom I respected. We were exchanging views on current events when he commented that he was surprised that I’d let my mind get small.
Ooh, that stung.
Our best hope for finding invisible flaws in what we can’t see in our own thinking is to enter into different ideas or points of view—ideas that carry different assumptions. Only after we’ve managed to inhabit a different way of thinking will our currently invisible assumptions become visible to us. ~Peter Elbow, professor
That I had let my mind close was something I hadn’t considered. More importantly, I didn’t want to be as closed-minded as I believed those with whom I was debating were. Yet I was. Goodness.
There’s nothing good about being small-minded. Too much judgment, too many expectations, too much rigidity and conflict. Ick. I was seeing only what I looked for. That narrow perspective needed to change, and taking five actions helped me do that.
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” ~ Nyogen Senzaki
5 ways to fuel curiosity, patience, acceptance, and personal growth
Give up on being right. Academia and business reward us for viewing the world through a right versus wrong lens. Let go of that orientation. Let a “my way or the highway” mindset belong only to bullies. Life, love, and leadership are more fun and rewarding when we let go of right/wrong judgments and learn to live with different opinions. Ambiguity exercises our minds and expands our hearts.
Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow. ~Tony Schwartz
Pick your battles. Not very issue is worthy of falling on your sword. Learn to gracefully and tactfully push back for constructive reasons on issues that really move the needle.
Be curious and look for the big picture. Don’t ignore all the good apples in the basket because of the single bad one on top. Take Dr. Elbow’s advice and get outside yourself and see from the perspective of someone else. Diversity of thought, opinion, and perspective brings the big picture fully into view. Helps with having humility, too.
Give people the benefit of the doubt. If you believe you can always tell a book by its cover, you’re biased and missing out. Enough said.
Tolerance isn’t enough. Tolerance, i.e., I can live with xx, is a virtue. It’s just not enough, though, in these days in which scientists say the range in degrees of separation is from two to ten people. That’s a lot of connectedness and difference to contend with. I can live with xx is best replaced with xx is OK. Through curiosity, we learn to respect people’s right to believe differently. Lead with love, not judgment.
Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on. ~Eckhart Tolle
Letting go of certainty brings peace. It begets openness, understanding, and connection, too. Expectations and social constructs become less constraining; conformity more boring. We become free to experience and grow. And be patient when someone expects us to see the yard waste we don’t see.
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Once upon a time there was boss who was an extrovert and who preferred working with extroverts. He liked people jockeying to make themselves heard and found the quiet, reflective ones annoying. Over time, he quit adding introverts to his team and weeded out those who had joined the team before he took over.
He was shocked when a class action discrimination charge was filed against him.
It’s estimated that somewhere between 50 and 74 percent of the population are extroverts. This boss preferred working with talkative, high-energy, action-oriented people. He loved having a team of outgoing individuals who didn’t hesitate to share their opinions, even if they had to talk over each other to do so. This boss believed reflective and thoughtful individuals who weren’t johnnie-on-the-spot with a loud opinion weren’t qualified to work in his department.
This boss let his preference—his bias—morph into prejudice, which resulted in discrimination.
Let’s take a look at how this hierarchy of harm unfolds:
Bias: a tendency to favor or disfavor that prevents neutral consideration.
Prejudice: a preconceived opinion, prejudgment, or attitude that negatively impact one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions about a group or individual.
Discrimination: unfair, inappropriate, unjustifiable, and negative behavior toward a group or its members.
Having a bias for extroverts didn’t make this boss a bad person. What made him a bad leader, though, was that he failed to control for his bias.
He’s not alone. Even though we like to fancy ourselves as unbiased, we’re all biased. In fact, our brains facilitate it.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls it “System 1” thinking, an “effortless, often unconscious process that infers and invents causes and intentions, neglects ambiguity, suppresses doubt, and uses similarity rather than probability.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell calls it “the power of thinking without thinking.”
We all occasionally go on autopilot, especially when under pressure or experiencing something new, and rely on the mental pairings we make when we fold things into our memory. Being an effective leader. though, depends on whether or not we tame our biases or let them control what we do.
5 common workplace cognitive biases
Biases are everywhere. “Cultural biases are like smog in the air,” says Jennifer Richeson, a Yale psychologist. “To live and grow up in our culture, then, is to ‘take in’ these cultural messages and biases and do so largely unconsciously.”
Some biases bubble up more frequently than others. As you read about these five common biases, think about where you work. Can you see the influence of that bias in how your workplace culture thinks, feels, and acts?
Anchoring: the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions.
Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
Groupthink: the psychological phenomenon for alignment that occurs within a group of people because of the desire for, and/or pressure to, have harmony or conformity.
Halo effect: the tendency for someone’s overall impression of a person, either good or bad, to be influenced by how they feel and think about the other person’s character.
Overconfidence effect: the tendency for someone to believe subjectively that his or her judgement is better or more reliable than it objectively is.
Bias is tricky to manage. Why? Because it’s difficult for us to see our own biases.
We bump into the introspection illusion, “the assumption that our own golden rule of objectivity works well for ourselves—but others’ rules don’t work for them. The result is a blind spot that can lead otherwise careful people to exempt themselves from rules of behavior they would rigorously apply to others.”
5 ways to tame bias
So, how do leaders avoid the thinking without thinking trap that the extrovert-preferring boss fell victim to?
Leaders can five things to minimize the impact of biased thinking. They can:
- Be mindful of always listening to their gut. Quick decisions and first impressions can unconsciously be shaped by bias. Be curious and fact check before acting.
- Involve more people in the policy- and decision-making process. The trade-off in time involved is balanced by the emergence of fuller, deeper, richer, and more inclusive outcomes because we’re considering a broader spectrum of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives.
- Stop relying exclusively on memory—it isn’t as infallible, accurate, or impartial as most people think it is. Memory plays tricks on everyone. Biased impressions are folded into our memories.
- Recognize that not every decision is best served by using narrow either/or thinking. Sometimes, the right answer is both/and. Biased thinking is often at the core of polarization.
- Include contrarians on every team and listen to what they have to say. Their contributions in helping people see things from a different perspective are invaluable. They force us to inhabit a different way of thinking.
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts. ~Bertrand Russell
What methods have been successful for you in learning to mitigate the impacts of bias?
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Going into the holidays, I’d never have guessed that a bowl of collard greens and black-eyed peas would serve up lessons about managing bias. I don’t think my table mate did either.
Over dessert, my table mate remarked that she still had a nasty taste in her mouth from “that awful green dish that had been forced on her.”
“Is this your first experience eating collard greens?”
“Yes, and they’re just as disgusting as everyone says they are.”
“Good for you, though, in trying them.”
“I didn’t have much choice. He forced me. He put them on my plate.”
“I saw Arthur serve them after he asked you if you wanted any, and you said ‘yes.’”
“What was I supposed to say?”
“Did you want to taste them?”
“No way. Why taste something I know is going to be awful?”
“In that case, I think it would have been perfectly fine for you to have said ‘no thanks.’ Arthur wouldn’t have cared.”
“That would have been rude.”
“Not at all provided you were polite. I see it as being honest and sticking up for yourself.”
“So, you think I was wrong?” My table mate was getting worked up.
“I think you missed a chance to do what you wanted to do. If I don’t want to taste something, I just say so. Nicely. I do think it’s unfair to say you were forced to eat them. Arthur was being a good host, walking around the table, carrying the heavy bowl and offering to serve. Several people shook their heads no.”
“I wanted to be nice.”
“Declining to take a serving of something you don’t want doesn’t make you not nice.”
“What does it make me?”
“I think it makes you self-confident and assertive.”
“There’s things we all don’t like to do that, for one reason or another, we simply have to do. Like dealing with difficult people. There’s lots of other things, like short-changing ourselves, especially if we’re women, to serve the wants of someone else that are in our control. Trying to be nice isn’t a reason for doing them.”
Table talk shifted loudly to football, so our sidebar chat ended. But my thinking about the exchange didn’t. Three topics haunted me.
Collard green-inspired lessons about bias and being a leader
1) How broad and deep the reach of confirmation bias is—even affecting if we’re going to like collard greens or not! Because someone we care for or trust says something is so, we close our minds and accept their position. It takes guts, grace, determination, and a village to counteract how these tendencies limit our experience and possibilities.
People don’t change their minds—just the opposite. Brains are designed to filter the world so we don’t have to question it. While this helps us survive, it’s a subjective trap; by only seeing the world as we want to, our minds narrow and it becomes difficult to understand opposing opinions. When we only look for what confirms our beliefs (confirmation bias), only side with what is most comfortable (cognitive dissonance, and don’t scrutinize contrary ideas (motivated reasoning) we impede social, economic, and academic progress. ~Sam McNerney, author and neuroscientist
2) How important it is to own what we do, no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering it is. Convincing ourselves that someone else is responsible, i.e., he made me eat the greens, is an excuse that may sound logical on the surface but that, when probed, shows a lack of character, confidence, and inner strength.
In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. ~Eleanor Roosevelt
3) How the belief that simply expressing a personal preference makes us unkind, not nice, or rude so we choose to be silent. Granted, if we’re obnoxious, condescending, or disrespectful in sharing our views, then we are unkind, not nice, and rude. We have to give ourselves permission to gracefully, tactfully, compassionately, share what we think or what we want. Conversely, if we’re already comfortable sharing, we have to honor the rights of others to do the same. Learning to disagree without being disagreeable is the secret sauce.
What’s your thoughts on disagreeing with grace?
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In Silicon Valley’s bro-culture, women face gender stereotypes that prevent recognition of their actual abilities and gender biases that obstruct their career advancement. Nevertheless, without waiting for their companies’ cultures to change, women can utilize effective communication techniques to avoid or overcome these career-limiting biases.
The trick is to present themselves – using verbal and nonverbal behavior – so they are perceived as competent, confident, committed to their careers, and capable of leadership, without being perceived as pushy, bossy, abrasive, or unpleasant.
Managing the Goldilocks Dilemma
We call this sort of impression management, attuned gender communication. In seeking advancement, women face the Goldilocks Dilemma.
That is, they are often seen either as too soft (likable but not competent and confident) or too hard (competent but not likable), and rarely just right. This double bind results from the pervasive nature of traditional gender stereotypes: women are (and are expected to be) kind, caring, pleasant, modest, supportive, and sensitive; men are (and are expected to be) independent, competitive, decisive, aggressive, strong, action-oriented, and unemotional.
When a member of either sex deviates from these expected behavioral patterns there is backlash.
Pressure to conform
Because of the possibility of backlash, women (often unconsciously) tend to conform to these gender stereotypes.
They often speak and write about themselves tentatively and with diffidence; they often downplay their personal contributions; recount their successes hesitantly; and understate their career goals.
By conforming to these traditional gender stereotypes, a woman is viewed as pleasant and likable but without the drive, competence, and ambition of her male counterparts. But when a woman ignores this expected gendered-communication script and explicitly displays the characteristics of an effective, competent, confident leader, she is likely to be seen as unpleasant, abrasive, and unlikable.
Hence the Goldilocks Dilemma: conform to traditional gender stereotypes and be dismissed as lacking leadership potential; violate these traditional stereotypes and be socially isolated, professionally penalized, and viewed as unlikable.
Whether you work in Silicon Valley or another male-dominated field, attuned gender communication can help you overcome the Goldilocks Dilemma.
Once you understand the gender stereotypes and how they operate to hold you back, you are in a position to take control of your career—even in today’s gender-biased workplaces.
It’s a balancing act
By managing the impressions other people have of you, you can come across as confident and warm, competent and collaborative, tough-minded and likeable. Different communication techniques are needed for different situations; sometimes you will need to dial up your forcefulness, and sometimes you will need to dial it down. But in all situations, you should be able to communicate in an articulate, engaging, and confident manner without coming across as shrill, aggressive, or unpleasant.
It may take some practice, but by balancing the soft with the hard, you can avoid the Goldilocks Dilemma and get ahead in your career – even in Silicon Valley.
Today’s LeadBIG guest contributors are Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris, authors of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, (Bibliomotion, Brookline, Mass. 2016). Join the conversation at www.AndieandAl.com.
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