The impact of bias on leadership

June 20, 2022

Written by 
Harriet Griffiths

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The impact of bias on leadership

In the workplace, discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping have rightly become the centre of our attention over the past few decades. Consequently, many initiatives, policies and guidelines have been produced, which have driven some positive changes for equality, diversity and inclusion within the world of work. Although much more needs to be done, there are some subtle behavioural levels of bias that sit underneath this, that are alive and well in all of us and influence how we show up. It’s more obscure because often these biases can serve us positively, but can also easily trip us up, often without our awareness. Any and all of these biases apply to leaders because we are all human. But what impact are these biases having on you and your organisation? On your ability to meet objectives, make decisions and build relationships.

Examples of bias within leadership

·        The sunk-cost effect occurs when someone chooses to do or continue something just because they have made a substantial investment of their resources, despite it not meeting the desired outcomes. For example, during my Psychology degree, I would realise half way through an essay that I wasn’t actually answering the question properly, but I continued as I had already spent days working on it. Are you working on a project or initiative where you’re too invested to see the outcome clearly?

·        Affinity/ attribution bias occurs when you are biased towards someone who is in some way, like you. I’m sure we can all relate to that feeling when you first meet someone and instantly hit it off, you share the same interests and humour. However, this bias can distort how we view others’ behaviour and can lead us to incorrectly evaluate the reasons behind the experience and accomplishment of others. For example, if we put them in a boxlike “us”, we view their positive work/ success as due to personality and innate characteristics. Whereas any negative work/outcomes as down to circumstances or bad luck. However, those we place in the “them” box and view as dissimilar to us we attribute their success as due to luck and their failures as due to their innate characteristics. How does this resonate?  Take a moment and reflect on your level of bias in this space.

·        Conformity bias is the pressure we feel to act due to the actions of others, not our own independent thinking. This bias can lead to the formation of groupthink, where discussions become echo chambers of the same or similar views, or cultures where decisions aren’t properly critiqued.

·        Confirmation bias is when we unconsciously seek out or interpret information in favour of our prior beliefs or values. Although this can help us to reach conclusions more quickly, we can overlook information that supports alternative possibilities as our brains are filled with this undisciplined thinking.


Impact of bias on leadership

These biases can serve us positively in some instances, however when we lack awareness or overlook them, they can negatively impact individuals and our organisation as a whole. So, given that bias is part of the human experience, the key question is: How do we know if our biases are starting to have a negative impact?

Sense of belonging

Being a part of a group has a positive impact on our sense of belonging, social identity and esteem. Therefore, the formation of groups is beneficial within organisations, but it also means that someone who isn’t let into a group, in whatever way that manifests, may experience a low sense of belonging and esteem, resulting in low productivity. The impact this has on group dynamics and the effectiveness of a team can be significant. It’s challenging to be fully ‘in’ something if you don’t feel accepted as part of the group.

It is also good to be aware that in-group favouritism and out-group hostility might occur. For example, we have an innate tendency to favour and protect the self-esteem of our ‘in-groups’, and perceive other ‘outgroups’ as a potential threat. As a leader you are accountable for paying attention to group dynamics and counteracting this human instinct to distinguish insiders from outsiders. Do the groups within your organisation appear to be healthy and improve productivity? If you have just gone through are organisation, then in-group favouritism and out-group hostility may be more likely to occur.


Affinity bias and similarity with others can be positive and strengthen the quality of our relationships, resulting in more mutual influence, support and trust. However, the opposite is true for those who have less affinity with others, and can lead to lower quality relationships with low trust, support and rewards. A common area for this to manifest is in the perception and management of performance.  When you reflect, are your decisions and feedback objectively based on the quality of work or is there some affinity bias involved here?

Proximity can be beneficial for many reasons, including improved communication and collaboration. However, it can also lead to proximity bias, where leaders give preferential treatment and assert higher trust to employees who they physically see. It can even lead us to value the physical presence of a person more than their contribution or/ work (presentism bias). With hybrid working now being the new normal, it can lead remote employees to feel as though they are “out of sight, out of mind” and feel overlooked on projects. In global businesses, some employees will live in the same country as one another, so naturally will be in closer proximity. Take a moment to reflect on this.  How does this bias show up for your leadership teams?  How can balance be achieved?  


Availability heuristics drive us towards the easiest and quickest solutions, which sometimes is exactly what we need! However, this can also be at the expense of more creative, bright ideas. We inadvertently rely on immediate examples that come to mind while making judgments, which means past experiences can shape our current decisions. As a leader, do you notice yourself seeking out previous experiences or the most accessible answers when making decisions or trying to think creatively? Next time you’re making a decision can you integrate your existing knowledge with the unknown?

Impact and accountability:

As a leader you have the ability to set the tone for your organisation. Through daily questions and reflections, you can begin to identify your own possible sources of bias, seek fresh insight and build a better awareness of the bias within teams and your organisation. This could lead to more informed decisions and flexible choices and most importantly - it could allow each individual to harness their full energy, enthusiasm and potential. So, how can we hold ourselves accountable?  Here are a few key questions that you can ask yourself, that will keep you in touch with how bias is manifesting itself for you.


What questions should we be asking ourselves?

Do you actively listen to all concerns raised throughout your team?

How aware are you of group dynamics within your organisation?

Can you think of any obvious in-group’s / out group’s at your organisation?

Are you overlooking some biases that are present within groups?

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