strengths-unconscious-biasesToday’s episode is a question that came up this week when I did an event for one of my awesome tech clients here in Austin, Texas. I was checking in with security and he asked about the purpose of my visit. I said I was delivering a StrengthsFinder team session. Pretty soon, he's telling me his top five talent themes and we were asking each other questions about our CliftonStrengths profiles, which led to the StrengthsFinder answer highlighted in this episode.

My First Major Strengths Insight … Ever

He asked, "What was your first ever major insight from strengths?" So here I am, quickly scanning over 13 years of insights, and boom — it hit me like a bolt of lightning. My answer was that seeing my strengths and the strengths of people on my team (my direct reports) helped me understand that I had some dangerous unconscious biases.

Now, I am not talking about the biases that many workplaces are focused on right now, like racial biases or gender biases. Cognitive bias is another layer entirely. What I discovered is that I had strong cognitive biases.

And being in a people-manager role, this "thinking" bias was leading me to value the decision-making approaches and the thought processes of certain people on the team more than others. It was leading me to appreciate the relationship styles of some people over others. It was leading me to think that some people were high maintenance and not enrolled in our vision.

But once I explored our talents at a team level — our natural ways of thinking and feeling and acting — it helped me discover that I placed the greatest value on people who thought most like me (doh!). It was an especially dangerous bias because I didn’t realize I was doing it.

Cognitive Biases Are Extraordinarily Powerful Yet Often Unconsidered

Just imagine what this awareness could do to improve performance on the team. For example, one person on the team leads through the Consistency, Deliberative, and Intellection themes. She is probably at peak performance when she can think deeply and carefully about changes, how they will affect the people and processes on the team, and how they could be implemented prudently.

Meanwhile, imagine my Strategic theme: decision-making and pressing the go-button fast. And my Individualization theme leads me to rarely feel married to a consistent, standard way of doing things. If a situation calls for something else, I love to adjust and customize and change. To take it further, my Maximizer loves to tweak and change and make things better.

All the while, I am driving her crazy. She likes a steady, stable, predictable world. She likes to get rich context and then study a topic deeply.  Yet I'm throwing her constant changes and extending little empathy for the anxiety I cause her.

And if you’ve read the book Strengths-Based Leadership, you know that Stability is one of the deepest needs of your team. So in this scenario, which happens to be a real-life memory from one of my teams, my personal biases and preferences were leading me to create an environment that put her at her worst and left her feeling frustrated every day.

Self Awareness Of Your Patterns

To apply this to yourself, think about your talents and consider these questions:

  • What kind of people do you most enjoy being around? This tells you something about your relationship-building patterns and preferences.

  • What kind of thinkers do you love working with? Is it fast thinkers with lots of ideas? Is it careful thinkers who go deep? It is it analytical thinkers who always consider data, credibility, and proof?

  • What are your trust patterns? My friend Lexy Thompson has this concept of a trust faucet. Are you a person who trusts easily — the type of person who extends trust quickly, like a faucet that is turned all the way on? Or do people earn your trust slowly over time, like you’re releasing it one drop at a time?

As a manager of a team, if you will take the time to understand these things about your team members, you can have massive insights about where you are similar and where you are different from people on your team. And if you’re honest with yourself and you’re willing to be very self-aware, you may find that you are biased toward people who are like you. Or, you might be biased toward experiences that honor your talents or bring you personal energy. Even when these biases are totally fine (which they sometimes are), it’s great to have an awareness of them.

Here’s a super simple example of being biased toward experiences that honor your talents: When I was sitting in the lobby with that client at the security desk, chatting about strengths, there was a Rolling Stones song playing in the background. It’s the one called Sympathy for the Devil. Don't worry, I’m not about to dive into a lesson on devilish biases.

What happened is that the very moment he asked me my talent themes and I finished by saying the word Woo (my #5), the song breaks into the part where the rest of the band does the “Woo Woo.” I pointed at the speakers and added in my own “Woo Woo” singalong.

He thought it was awesome because his Connectedness talent knows that song came at the perfect moment for a reason and that there are all sorts of connections like this for us to make if we’re looking around for it. My Positivity talent theme loved being able to create a second of comic relief by singing in the middle of the lobby and getting to crack up together.

We each had a bias toward that moment, yet it came from a different motivation and set of values. So that’s another reason why this concept of cognitive biases is fascinating because your preferences might be similar on the outside, yet on the inside, you have vast differences in the motivations and values that sit underneath them. The "Woo Woo" example is totally harmless - not a bias either of us should try to squash. Still, it's great to be observant of those preferences in the low-stakes moments so that you can be easily aware of them when the stress and stakes are high.

Differences Are Differentiators

The beauty of a strengths-focused culture is that you can see differences as differentiators rather than seeing them as annoyances. It helps you understand how to use each person's unique awesomeness to improve your overall team performance. And rather than viewing those “different” team members as high maintenance, you can reframe that to understand that there are people on the team that do not think like you.

Surprisingly, this is good news. It means they cover important ways of thinking, acting, doing, and performing that do not appeal to you. And likely, your organization needs some of that “other way." So if you can value those ways of thinking, you can make the person a superstar in that area. And — bonus! You don’t personally have to spend your headspace in that zone.

For example, I don’t personally love to think about all of the risks and possibilities for where things might go wrong. There are usually people on my team who do enjoy that. So, in this example, I could delegate risk management-related responsibilities to the person who enjoys it.

I could send juicy problems to people with the Restorative talent theme — to people who have a great time working out the solutions — people who love the puzzle of exploring the problems and fixing things. It’s no surprise that my Positivity talent theme doesn’t get energy or enjoyment from wallowing in problems.

To give you another example, a manager I met with last week is not strong in relationship talents and so rather than lamenting all of the critical customer relationships he needed to build, he instead delegated that authority to someone on his team who leads through Includer, Empathy, and Connectedness. Then both people get to have more fun and be more aligned with their highest and best use. The customer gets a better experience. And the company gets better overall performance.

Reflections To Consider Your Biases

So to summarize, take a look at your own biases. Here are three questions to get you started:

  1. Who do you like spending time with? And to go deeper, after you think of those specific people or those types of people, now ask yourself if you tend to believe that the people you like are the higher performers? That’s a dangerous bias I’ve fallen into as a manager in the past.

  2. If you've unlocked your full 34 StrengthsFinder lineup, look at your lesser talents, which are probably your bottom five. Ask yourself which themes, at the bottom of your personal list, bring you a tendency to potentially insult those talent themes in others who hold them in their Top 5. For example, Harmony is #33 on my list. And someone who leads through Harmony might feel totally drained in a work environment where people are disagreeing all the time. Well, my Individualization doesn’t mind if people disagree because I think we can all come at things differently and still be a functional team. Yet someone who has Harmony at #1 might get a gut-wrenching feeling when we are not moving toward consensus or not trying to find areas of similarity.

    To make this self-reflection even cooler, extend it into an others-assessment also. If you can see the lineup of all 34 of your direct reports, go explore your themes that seem opposite of each other on the surface. Look for where you might drive each other crazy if you’re not conscious of pairing your strengths for and awesome yin-yang thing.

  3. Think about whether your biases are allowing people to be seen and heard and appreciated at work. My friend Dave Stachowiak mentions this on our podcast interview. His insight really stuck with me. And if you think of this in the context of biases, you’ll quickly see that most of us have preferences that would make it tougher for someone else to feel appreciated.

    Of course, as your self-awareness increases and as your talent themes mature, you learn to ask great questions and be curious and to value other peoples' opinions even when you don’t agree with them. And if you want to amp up your emotional intelligence and your overall effectiveness as a leader, it’s important to give this a good consideration.

Burnout Might Bring Your Bias Out

As we bring this in for a landing, it's important to note that I don’t believe that our strengths and natural talents bring us negative cognitive biases all the time. We have plenty of positive biases as well. Yet we’re human, which means we’re flawed. And you’re probably a growth-minded lifetime learner if you’re listening to a show like this.

So think of these cognitive biases as states of mind that you can change. And that might be more likely to crop up in you when you’re overtaxed, burned out, and falling into lazy thinking. But when your awareness is high, you can invest in those talents to apply them as contributions — and you will be on watch for other people’s contributions (especially the ones that are different from yours). To keep your biases in your awareness, watch for differences and use them as differentiators!

 

Here's A Full Transcript Of The 17 Minute Episode

 

You're listening to Lead Through Strengths, where you'll learn to apply your greatest strengths at work. I'm your host, Lisa Cummings, and I gotta tell you, it's hard to find something more energizing and productive than using your natural talents every day at work.

Today's episode is a question that came up this week when I did an event for one of my awesome tech clients here in Austin, Texas. So, I was checking in with security, and he asked for the purpose of my visit, like they always do. And I said I was delivering a StrengthsFinder team session. So pretty soon, he's telling me his top 5 talent themes. And we were asking each other all sorts of questions about our CliftonStrengths profiles. How cool is that when you just run into people who know this world, which led to the answer highlighted in this episode?

So, he asked me this unique question, which was, what was my first ever major insight from Strengths? So, I'm sitting there trying to scan over 13 years of insights, and then totally hit me like lightning bolt. My answer was that seeing my strengths, and the strengths of the people on my team, my direct reports really helped me understand that I had some dangerous, unconscious biases. And it was really reading my report and digging into strengths that let me see that these were going on in my head.

Now, I'm not talking about the biases that a lot of workplaces are focused on right now, like racial biases, or gender biases. This is different. This is when I discovered I had strong cognitive biases. And being in a people manager role, it was leading me to value the thought processes of certain people on the team, more than others’ thought processes. It was leading me to appreciate the relationship styles of some people over the style of others. It was leading me to think that some of the team members were high maintenance, and not even enrolled in our vision.

But then once I explored the talent themes, and we dug into them at a team level, you know, our natural ways of thinking and feeling and acting all of our talent themes, it helped me then discover that, “Ooh, I placed the greatest value on people who thought just like me.” It was a crazy insight when it struck me that those were the team members I valued the most and thought were the highest performers, because they thought like I did. And wow, I realized that's a dangerous bias because I didn't even realize I was doing it. It was just the language and conversation that came from strengths that made me see this was going on. So now that I've watched this phenomenon happen for years and years, I see that cognitive biases are extraordinarily powerful, yet they're often unconsidered by managers and by anyone who's an employee, or just anyone who isn't a human walking around this earth.

Just imagine what this awareness could do to improve performance on the team. So, take an example, say, a person on the team leads through the Consistency, Deliberative and Intellection themes. Now she's probably at her peak performance, when she can think really deeply and think really carefully about changes, and how they'll affect both the people and the processes on the team, and how they could be implemented. Not just getting it done, but getting it done, prudently.

So, meanwhile, imagine my Strategic theme in the same situation - decision making and pressing the “Go” button really fast. And my Individualization theme - boy, it would lead me to not feel married to any consistent standard way of doing things. And then if a situation is going to call for something else, you know, like, I'm happy to adjust and customize and change. That's what Individualization is all about - giving that person or that situation, that thing it needs.

And then to take it further, my Maximizer loves to tweak and change and make things better. So, all the while, I'd be driving her crazy with my constant changes. And if you've ever read the book, Strengths-based Leadership, it takes us even further because you know, then that stability is one of the 4 deepest needs of your team. So, in this scenario, which happens to be a real-life memory from one of my teams, my personal biases and preferences, were leading me to create an environment that put her at her worst that left her feeling drained and frustrated on a whole lot of days.

I mean, you hear me in my sessions often talk about those draining sessions when you're calling on your weaknesses all the time and how it can feel like soul-sucking drudgery. And that's exactly what I was doing to her, which leads to the benefit of the self-awareness of your patterns.

So, to apply this to yourself, now think about your talents, and consider these few questions.

One, what kind of people do you most enjoy being around? You can think of specific people, your favorite people that when you're around them, you're like, “Oh my god, I could just hang out with them all day long.” And then also just think of the types of people who you really enjoy being around. This tells you something about your relationship-building patterns and the preferences.

Second one, think of what kind of thinkers you love working with? Is it, oh, you're alive when you're with the best thinkers who have lots of ideas? Or is it awesome for you when you're around careful thinkers, or really deep thinkers who ponder the meaning that goes beyond the surface? Or is it the analytical thinkers who will always consider the data and the credibility and the proof?

Okay, and then the third one is, what are your trust patterns? So my friend, Lexi Thompson, has this concept of a trust faucet. And it's like this, you ask yourself, are you a person who trusts easily, like the kind of person who extends trust immediately, kind of like your faucet on the sink, but it's turned all the way on, you just let it come out? Or do people have to earn your trust, and it happens slowly, over time, like you'll release one drop at a time as they earn it? Knowing these kinds of things, and the interactions you bring to the team, and how that plays into your interactions with others, ‘really powerful to know.

And as a manager of the team, if you'll take the time to understand these things about your team members as well, you can have massive insights about where you're similar to them, and where you're really different from people on your team. And if you're honest with yourself, and you're willing to be really self-aware, you may find that you're biased toward people who are like you. Or you might be biased toward experiences that honor your talents, or they bring you personal energy.

And even when these biases are totally fine, which they sometimes are, it's great to have an awareness of them. So, I'll give you a super simple example of one that happened where it's totally fine. And it's a small thing. But that day that I was sitting in the lobby with that guy chatting about my strengths, there was a Rolling Stone song playing in the background of the lobby, just the Sympathy for the Devil song playing while you're at work.

But no, I'm not about to bring up devilish biases or anything like that, or tell you about try tones or something scary. What happened is that he just was asking me about my talent themes. And as I named the 5, I finished with number 5, whoo, and in the exact moment, the song broke into that part where the rest of the band is doing that thing where they they do the whoo, whoo.

So, it was amazing. So, when it happened, I pointed at the speakers and I'm adding in my own.

 

[7:50] So, we were having a good laugh and he thought it was awesome because his Connectedness talent knows that song came on at the perfect moment, for a reason. And there are all sorts of connections like that available to us to make if we would just look around for it.

And at the same time, I loved it for a totally different reason. My Positivity, talent theme, love being able to create a second of comic relief by singing in the middle of the lobby like a goofball, but getting to crack up together. And we each had a bias toward this kind of experience toward that moment, but it came from a totally different place. So, it's another reason, another layer of why this concept of cognitive biases is just so fascinating, because your preferences might be similar on the surface to the people that you work with.

But that's just on the outside. On the inside, you still have these vast differences in the things that create the motivations and the values that sit underneath them. So, it's just another layer for you to add. So, let's explore how differences are differentiators. The beauty of a strengths-focused culture is that you can see differences as great differentiators rather than seeing them as super annoyances. They help you understand how you can use each person's unique awesomeness to improve team performance.

And rather than viewing those different team members as high maintenance team members, you can reframe it to understand that there are people on the team who don't think like you, which means this is great news. They cover important ways of thinking and acting and performing that do not appeal to you. And likely your organization still needs some of that other way.

So, if you can learn to value those other ways of thinking, doing acting, you can make a person a superstar in that area. And bonus, you don't have to personally spend your headspace in that zone because you don't like it anyway. So, for example, I don't personally love to think about all of the risks and possibilities for things that might go wrong. In a major project, I do believe it's important though, and there are usually people on my team who do enjoy that.

So, in this example, I could delegate risk management research or risk management related responsibilities to the person who does enjoy it. Another one, I could send juicy problems to people with the Restorative talent theme to people who have a great time working out the solutions, people who adore the idea of the puzzle and how they can fix things and explore the problem. It's no surprise, on the other hand, that my Positivity talent, well, it doesn't get energy or enjoyment from wallowing in problems.

In fact, I'd prefer to not have it happen, although it's a reality of the workplace. Problems come up. And when they're complex, and then going to take a lot of time to work through, it's pretty cool if you can send those to people who really like to do the research and the unraveling and the consideration of all of the ways you could go about solving it.

At a minimum, if you don't outsource it off entirely, at least consider partnering with someone who can take on part of that headspace. To give you one more example, a manager I met with last week, not strong in relationship talents. And so rather than lamenting, oh, the customer relationships that he needed to build because he did not want to meet with another person. Instead, he delegated that authority to someone on his team who leads through Includer and Empathy and Connectedness and just loved building these relationships.

So then both of them get to have more fun, both of them get to be more aligned at work with their personal highest and best use, and the customer gets a better experience. And the company gets better overall performance. It's pretty big stuff. And these are all just things you can begin to unravel as you explore biases and strengths as an ongoing conversation.

So, to summarize it all, take a look at your own biases. I'll give you 3 questions to get you started. There are a million you could ask yourself, but here are 3 of them to get you going.

So, the first is back to that question number 1. Who do you like spending time with? Now I asked that question earlier. But let's go even deeper here. After you think of those specific people, or those specific types of people, now think about this in your leadership capacity.

 

[12:24] Do you tend to believe that the people you're like, are the higher performers. That is a really dangerous bias. And I fall in it into that as a manager several times unfortunately.

Number two, if you've unlocked your full 34 Strengths Finder lineup, so that means not just doing the basic top 5, but you've also then paid to get the upgrade code to see the stack rank of all of the 34 talent themes. And now you can see the top and the bottom, we'll look down at the bottom at your lesser talents, which are probably about your bottom 5, and ask yourself, which themes at the bottom of your personal list, bring you a tendency to potentially insult those talent themes and other people who hold them in their top 5.

So, if I give you an example, Harmony is number 33 on my list. And let's say someone on my team reported to me and they had Harmony, number 1, number 2, well, they might feel totally drained in a work environment where people are disagreeing all the time. But meanwhile, my Individualization doesn't mind if people disagree, because I think we can just come at things differently, but we can still be functional. And so, imagine someone with Harmony number 1, getting a gut-wrenching feeling all day when we're not moving toward consensus, or trying to find similarity, because I'm just thinking, “No. No big deal. We can, we can be dissimilar, and that's fine.”

So, to make this self-reflection part even cooler, then you can also extend it into an others’ assessment. So, if you can see the lineup of full 34 of your direct reports, just do a full-on exploration of tops versus bottoms; their top, their bottom, your top your bottom, and start to find some of those themes that seem opposite of each other on the surface. And then you can look for places where you can, instead of driving each other crazy and butting heads, if you're not conscious about it, instead, you can pair your strengths for a really awesome yin yang kind of thing that you have worked out.

Okay, number 3 reflection. This is to think about whether your biases are allowing people on the team to feel seen and heard and appreciated at work. My friend Dave Stachowiak mentions this on the podcast interview that we did together. So, I'll link to that into the show notes in case you didn't hear that one. And man, his insights really stuck with me. If you think of this topic in the context of biases, you'll quickly see that most of us have preferences that would make it tougher for someone else to just easily feel appreciated by you.

 

[15:02] And so of course, as your self-awareness increases, and as your talent themes are mature or maturely applied, then as a leader, you learn to ask better questions, you learn to be more curious, you learn to value other people's opinions, even when you don't agree with them. Because just to make someone feel seen and heard and appreciated, doesn't mean you have to go along with everything everyone else says. Seeing, making them feel heard, helping them feel appreciated, is different from just a weaning kind of agreement going along with everything everyone says, I just like to throw that in there because sometimes people say, “well, that just sounds really weak and like, you're just gonna get tossed around by everybody else's preferences.”

No, it's more about amping up your emotional intelligence and your overall effectiveness as a leader. So, give that one some consideration. So, as we bring this in for a landing, it's really important to note, I don't think that our strengths and our natural talents bring us some negative cognitive bias all the time. But we're human, which means we're flawed. And you personally are probably a growth-minded lifetime learner person, because you're listening to shows like this. So, think of these cognitive biases, as states of mind, states that you can change. And these are states that are more likely to crop up in you in those moments when you're overtaxed, burned out, super busy, because those are the times when you get into lazy thinking.

But when your awareness is high, and when that high awareness is your habit, you can invest in those talents, and learn to take each of them and help people apply them as contributions. And you'll be on watch for both your own contributions and other people's contributions, especially the ones that are different from yours.

So, with that, I'll leave you with the idea that using your strengths on the team will help you build a stronger performance on the team. To keep your biases in your awareness as a habit, start watching for differences, and then apply them by using them as differentiators.

About Andrew Kroeger

Andrew's Top 5 StrengthsFinder Talent Themes are Strategic, Futuristic, Learner, Relator, and Ideation