Identifying (and Conquering) Intrinsic Bias Turns Adversity Into Advantage

What does it take to create healthy workplaces where employees are engaged, empowered, and secure?

Two popular authors argue that a combination of implicit bias and antiquated leadership practices are hampering the modern workplace, and talk about how you to recognize these behaviors to help succeed in the workplace. Laura Huang is a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage which outlines how people can turn stereotypes into a competitive edge. Marquet is a former U.S. Navy submarine commander and author of Leadership is Language, which helps business leaders ditch old rules of communication and gain tools to inspire change.

They both visited LIFT Labs PHL recently for an author-to-author chat. They explained how startup founders can empower their teams to think boldly, take risks, and bring their authentic selves to work each day.

Here are some lessons from their conversation:

Turn adversity into advantage

Huang says to be prepared for people to make assumptions about you along racial, gender, or generational lines.  

“When you go into a situation, people will be making perceptions of you,” said Huang. “You can actually flip adversity and stereotypes to work in your favor and make them assets to empower yourself and gain your edge.”

It’s a great way to let your authentic self shine. “People are going to have a first impression of you whether you guide them to who you authentically are or not. So it’s much more authentic to show them the way you enrich and provide value,” said Huang.

Create a truly empowering workplace

Marquet argues that top-down language rooted in the Industrial Revolution is no longer relevant in today’s workplace — but it’s still incredibly prevalent. He says that hinders people’s ability to think critically, make important decisions and speak up if they think managers are making mistakes. 

He recalled an experiment he conducted in the Navy, telling subordinates to put an engine into second gear — even though it had no second gear. He watched again and again as confused workers attempted to carry out his order, even though they knew it was impossible. Marquet said such blind order-taking is a microcosm of the atmosphere in today’s workplaces. 

“We tell people that if an order is wrong, they can challenge the boss. But that’s worthless unless we actually practice it and create mechanisms that allow that to happen. Just saying it has no value,” said Marquet. “You don’t need to make following authority easier. You need to make challenging authority easier.”

Underserved groups make inaccurate assumptions as well (as illustrated by this example from the startup world)

In her research, Huang came across a truly eye-opening finding: “Female and male investors are both just as likely to discriminate against women,” she said. That’s tough to hear in a landscape where female founders only receive 2.8% of venture capital investment in the United States

While putting more women in executive positions and creating more female startup mentors helps, Huang said that’s just the beginning of the systemic change needed.

“We have to change behaviors from the inside out as well as structures from the outside in,” she said. “When we empower ourselves and know we can be flipping stereotypes in our favor, we can start to change the behaviors from the inside out as well.”

Bold thinking comes from security

Marquet recalled research done on mice faced with two paths — a scary but interesting route or a safer, boring route. When accompanied by their mothers, the mice choose the scarier path. When alone they chose the safer path. 

“Boldness comes from a sense of security and as leaders, when we don’t give our teams that sense of security, we can’t expect risk-embracing behavior,” said Marquet. “We’ve tried to substitute that with inspirational speech and motivation — but it just works superficially because it’s not an intrinsic motivator. So it just fades out. People need security to truly take risks.”

 

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