March 18, 2009

What does a Leader look like?

I've been engaged in a recent discussion on an online HR group on age discrimination. Though most people acknowledge it exists, many prefer to avoid the discussion as it seems too negative to dwell on.

So its my blog and I'll cry if I want to (a baby boomer reference...get it?)

Age discrimination is alive and well. So is discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and any number of other issues. The reality is, we all hold biases, many we don't even realize. I think its important to acknowledge these biases--in a sense, surface them so we can deal with them. The first step toward change is always awareness.

I had a situation once which put me in touch with my own biases. I was seeking a graduate level psychology intern for a program I was managing. I reviewed a resume, had a nice conversation with a potential candidate and set the meeting. She showed up at my door and I thought "Oh my!". She was large--very large. So I immediately came face to face with my own bias about weight. Fortunately, my years of psychological training helped me to recognize what was going on....I was ready to dismiss this talented young woman because she didn't fit my image of the best candidate for the job. So I was able to stare this bias squarely in the eye and put it aside. As it turns out, she was one of the best interns throughout the length of the program.

But how often are we really aware of our biases? When you are sitting face to face with a candidate who is 20 years your senior, or of a different race or ethnic group or whatever...and you have a specific image of the "appropriate" candidate for this position in your head, are you being truly objective?

What does a leader look like?

Social Psychology research has volumes of data to support the prevalence of these biases at work. Given random pictures of different age/ethnic/racial backgrounds of people, there are clear patterns that arise. Being tall and/or attractive also has an impact.

Personal biases are everywhere and they do figure in to the hiring and promotion process. So let's start with that premise, accept that inequities exist, and move toward making the changes we need. This will involve dealing at a macro level (addressing laws, societal norms) as well as the personal (be honest with ourselves about our own biases).

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