Uber Reveals the Perils of Grit Gone Wild

Set bold goals. Drive for results. Accelerate growth. Foster competition. Push people to excel.

This is the ‘grit’ side of business success, and it’s become a favored playbook in the start-up world. This formula has produced dizzying growth and investor bonanzas for countless new companies. So what’s not to love about a strategy like this? Ask Uber’s investors and its CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber’s strategy and corporate culture were overwhelmingly grit-centric:  which is to say that Uber has faltered – seriously and predictably – because of the absence of the grace aspect of the enterprise. What was missing in Kalanick’s Uber? Fairness; compassion; care for employees’ welfare; collaboration. You know – that touchy-feely stuff that, in the right amount, actually makes organizations sing.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with bodacious goals and an aggressive stance to productivity. But, if left to its own devices, grit’s aggressive ambition will ultimately bring a company down. Like a tall tree with shallow roots, like a field farmed year after year, like an engine run too hot for too long, a leader who leans on the grit and ignores the grace has followed a recipe for failure.

According to a recent New York Times article, Uber’s obsession with results at all costs – unmediated by attention to workplace equality, safety, civility and due process – has fostered some very unhealthy dynamics:

  • a hyper-competitive atmosphere which pits employees against each other and against management
  • inappropriate workplace conduct among high-performers has gone unchecked, condoned and even modeled from the top
  • incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination have continued to mount

As a result, Uber’s “bro” culture became a broken culture. Customers, employees and investors are in revolt and the company is in chaos.

  • The company’s brand and profits have taken a huge hit; Kalanick’s been forced to step aside.
  • Uber’s valuation has dropped from $68B to $50B, while its customers flock to competitor, Lyft.
  • Uber is mired in lawsuits brought by employees and competitors.
  • The company will need to devote untold resources and time to rehabilitate its culture, management practices and brand.

Our experience tell us, and research confirms, that the leaders who are effective over the long term are the ones who blend grit and grace. Maybe not in perfect halves, but at least in dynamic combination. Their actions promote productivity as well as harmony, and foster competition and collaboration in healthy measure. Why? Because the blend is what gets the best results over time.

The Uber story, like the 2009 real estate crisis and Enron before that, was predictable and avoidable, because grit alone (like grace alone) can’t deliver sustainable success. So if you’re a grit-leaning leader who wants to shoot the moon without the crash-and-burn, go get your grace on.



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Leading in the Eye of the Hurricane (Part 5): Charting the Next Right Step

You’ve found yourself leading in a time of crisis: which is to say, you are guiding others in a time of reality-shifting change. If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, you’ve joined me in exploring several tasks that are especially helpful for leading in times like this:

  1. Catching one’s breath
  2. Confronting what’s happening and
  3. Connecting to what’s enduring and essential

All of these tasks involve pulling yourself out of the fray and entering the still, quiet “eye of the hurricane,” where you can find necessary grounding and perspective.

“Charting the next right step” is the final task and the natural outgrowth of the first three. It marks the transition out of reflection and into action. Yet even for the action-oriented, moving forward in a crisis can be daunting.

First, crisis often invokes a sense of powerlessness. The forces of disruptive change are frequently far beyond your control. It’s sobering (and sane) to recognize the limits of your influence, especially when your team is looking to you to handle it all.

My clients who are taking effective action in critical times tend to focus in on what they can control and influence, and take action in that zone. They stay attuned to the uncontrollable forces at play, but invest their efforts where they can actually accomplish something.

The second obstacle to moving forward is the desire to establish the “perfect” plan before taking action. The stakes are high and you want to get this right. But in the chaos of crisis, there is no perfect plan. If you wait for it, you’ll never act. So you have to take what you do know, take a logical next step, and use that step to inform the next one. When things are changing fast, taking action is sometimes the only way to discern what the ‘right’ action is.

Otto Scharmer, a Senior lecturer at MIT, calls this “prototyping.” It involves sketching out an initial strategy and testing it out through implementation. Each action cycle produces new learning, which in turn informs the next cycle of implementation. This iterative approach can often build momentum more effectively than searching for the illusive perfect plan.

You can also prototype yourself! In the swirl of changes, you may be stretched to develop a whole new skill set or aspect of yourself. (I can help you with that.) Don’t attempt to take on all the changes in one fell swoop. Pick one or two areas to start and make small new moves. Then reflect on the results, recalibrate, and reengage.

The third obstacle to useful engagement is frenzied activity.  Frenzy functions in a strange way in the brain. The stress hormones pumping through your body tell your brain that you’re in danger and the only way out is to step harder on the gas. But your logical mind knows better: you will never manage all the debris that a crisis throws into the air. And if you try, you’ll probably end up just depleting yourself and your team – with little to show for it. If you find yourself in frenetic activity, it might be time to return to the ‘eye’ and attend to Tasks 1 – 3. There, you can settle yourself and figure out what matters most.

In normal times, leaders tend to map out a long term strategy and execute it according to plan. But in crisis – when the world as you know it is falling away and something new is emerging – it’s often impossible to see far enough ahead to map more than a few next steps. So crisis requires a different mode of taking action. It calls on you to discern new patterns as they are emerging, to formulate a prototype strategy, and test that prototype by putting it into motion. Then learn as you go, using the actions you’ve take to inform the actions to follow.


Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane (Part 4): Connecting To What’s Essential and Enduring

This is the fourth of my five-part series on crisis leadership.

If you’re like many people, you tend to equate ‘crisis’ with ‘disaster.’ But the word crisis actually comes from the Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ It describes any event – whether positive, negative or neutral – that separates a new reality from an old one. Thinking about crisis in terms of ‘separation’ certainly doesn’t eliminate the difficulty and loss of change.  But when leaders look at crisis as being cast into a new world, vs. as being thrown to their doom, they may be more able to navigate the storm of change productively.

In this series, I’ve explored the implications of this different lens on crisis, and mapped out five essential “renewal” tasks for crisis leadership: 1) Understanding the nature of crisis; 2) Catching one’s breath; 3) Confronting what’s happening now; 4) Connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and 5) Charting the next right step. So far, we’ve covered the first three.

  1. “Understanding the nature of crisis” involves relating to crisis, not necessarily as disaster (though that may certainly be there) but in a larger way: as a moment of profound separation from what we’ve known, expected, and believed.
  2.  “Catching one’s breath” requires pulling yourself out of the fray of change and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Taking the time to reflect and get your bearings feels counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But it’s critically important work, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re in a swirl.
  3. “Confronting what’s happening now.” is about leading others in seeing what’s happening, making sense of it intellectually and processing it emotionally. This is what it means to confront something – to face it head-on and heart-in.

Today we’ll explore the fourth task of crisis leadership: connecting to what’s essential and enduring amidst the change.

In crisis, we can become preoccupied with what’s being lost or threatened. Your world may be turning on its head and upending you, your team and your organization in the process: fighting for survival; recasting missions; questioning long-held beliefs; restructuring, regrouping or recovering.

But in the press of adaptation, we often forget to anchor ourselves in those things that aren’t changing, which can sustain and stabilize us. These are usually deeper “DNA” things like values (personal and organizational), shared history, accumulated knowledge, unique capabilities, or a strong reputation. There’s an essential “you” (or “us”) that continues, even if you have to radically change how you express it in your new reality.

Over the past months, I’ve been in conversations with many leaders who are remembering to tap into what is essential and enduring.  Here are some examples of how they’ve expressed that:

“I know we have to pay attention to the business. But focusing on our people is the only way this business survives.”

“Everything about how we do our work is changing. And personally, I don’t agree with the new direction. But I keep bringing myself and my staff back to our core mission – which is, has been, and always will be – of vital importance. We will adapt whatever we need to in order to keep this critical mission alive.”

“The company is exerting enormous pressure on us to sell, sell, sell. But what’s always won us business is delivering exceptional results for our clients. So that’s what we’re going to keep doing. I’m keeping an eye on sales, but I’m not going to chase ‘just any’ work or work we can’t deliver on.”

“Our church is losing its pastor after 30 years. We have two main tasks in this transition.  The first is to affirm this community’s many strengths, which are the pastor’s legacy to us. Our second job is to be intentional about drawing on those assets, so that the congregation stays robust beyond him.”

We can all take a cue from these leaders, who are drawing on foundational values and assets for stability in the storm. But that doesn’t mean it’s all going to work out for them – or you. Maybe you’ll still have to lay off staff. Can you challenge yourself do that in a way that’s true to the organization’s animating values? True to your own? Perhaps your team will lose the funding for its cherished project. Rather than fight to keep a doomed project alive, can you lead your team in reimagining its offering for a new world?

This makes sense, right? But you’d be surprised how often I see leaders abandon essential and enduring strengths as they scramble to adapt to a new reality. Try not to join their ranks. Instead, remember to articulate and amplify what is good and abiding amidst the change.

What about you?

  1. Think of a time when you led (or are leading) in profound disruption.
  2. How consciously or effectively did you leverage the power of what is “essential and enduring” during that time of change?  What were the results?
  3. The next time you face a major ‘separation,’ how can you better articulate and amplify the aspects of your organization that will continue?






Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 3): Confronting What’s Happening Now

This is the third installment of my five-part series on crisis leadership. The premise of the series is that leading in times of crisis (disruptive change) requires, to quote Liam Neeson, “a very particular set of skills.” This post examines another of those important capacities.

First, a quick recap. The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ We normally think of a crisis as something terrible. But it’s actually any cataclysmic event that separates “what is” from “what used to be.”  Crisis shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibility and what/whom we can trust. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

Part 2 focused on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath. Catching your breath requires pulling yourself out of the fray and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Getting centered is counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But catching your breath is crucial, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re breathless.

This post zeroes in on the second task: confronting what’s happening now.

Because crisis disrupts what we’ve known and relied on, it challenges how we think about ourselves and our world. So in times like this, leaders need to help their team to get grounded and to differentiate reality from the predictable hallucinations of fear.

Fake news, fact-as-opinion and partisan information bubbles make it very challenging to get an accurate picture of reality. Here are a few tips for getting your bearings in the swirling hurricane of change.

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” In chaotic times, it’s natural to try to minimize confusion. But the danger in that is that you might miss critical information. Navigating crisis requires leaders to model the ability to stay curious, keep learning, and adjust as you go. Try not to assume (or let others assume) that you know how this situation is going to go. Beware of over-simplifying a complex and nuanced reality. Take care not to shut down to perspectives or people that you disagree with. Stay open.
  • Engage your stakeholders. Don’t make assumptions about what your customers, suppliers, competitors, employees and bosses are experiencing. Ask them – and let in what they’re telling you.
  • Get educated. If your business is affected by pending legislation, read the bill itself, rather than relying on legislators’ or media’s interpretations. Consult legitimate media sources on the left and the right. If you’re wondering if media reports are accurate, here’s a link to an article by FactCheck.org on how to spot fake news.
  • Look at objective measures. Facts are the best stars by which to navigate this new terrain. But since “facts” have become a matter of opinion, make sure that the methodology by which the measures were arrived at are sound.

Once you gather information about what’s happening now, you have to make sense of it intellectually. Involving your team in this process is a great way to get everyone engaged, out of denial and up to speed. Here are examples of questions you can ask:

Based on what we’ve read, heard and experienced…

  • What do we know?
  • What do we not know, and when/how will we find out?
  • What do our data indicate will be the most likely outcomes?
  • What are the opportunities and threats of those outcomes?
  • What contingencies should we be preparing for?

The last, and perhaps most difficult, aspect is confronting what’s happening at an emotional level. Disruptive change has a profound impact on us personally, and failing to deal with these impacts is often what inhibits our ability to adapt.  Here are some questions you can use to confront the new reality at a personal level:

  • How does this all affect me?  How does it affect us?
  • What do I/we need to confront about the world or ourselves to really let this information in?
  • How do we feel about what we know?  What emotions does it stir in us?
  • How might our emotions and reactions be clouding our view or impeding our progress?  How might we manage that?
  • How can we leverage our emotions to foster positive action?

One of the greatest temptations in crisis is to jump to action. Sometimes, immediate action is exactly what’s called for. But often, that impulse to act is rooted in a desire to escape discomfort. Taking the time to catch your breath and to critically assess what’s happening can help you take action that is rooted in reflection, vs. in reactivity.









Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 2): Catching One’s Breath

Six weeks ago, I posted the first installment of “Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane,” a five-part series on crisis leadership. I knew then that big change was afoot, though I’m not sure many of us knew how hard the winds of change would blow.

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ A crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. Whether we see this disruptive event as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

This post focuses on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath.

Whether perilous or auspicious (or both), a crisis is a stormy time when the winds of change howl at hurricane force. For most of us, the instinct is to jump into the swirl and do something. Have you had any experience with that in the past couple of months? If so, you may have noticed a lot more activity than productivity, because we’re often taking action from an off-balanced place.

People are intently looking to you for What To Do, so it can be counterintuitive to slow down and get still. But that’s exactly what’s needed, because your wisest action will arise from your deepest center. Most leaders agree on the utility of entering stillness, yet most say it’s a lot easier said than done.

First you have to notice when you’re in the frazzled fray, so you can recognize when to pull back. The signs of being off-center are different for everyone, but can include:

  • an inability to sleep, and/or chronic exhaustion that is not improved by rest
  • increased irritability
  • confusion or overwhelm
  • obsessive thinking and/or engagement in media
  • a change in eating or drinking habits (e.g., consuming more carbs, fat and alcohol)

Even if you notice these symptoms in yourself, you may tend to override or gut through them. But these signs are actually your greatest allies, because they’re telling you that you’re probably not at your best. Heed them as a call to pause.

Leaders often tell me, “I know I need to take a minute to get myself right, but I don’t have the time.” As compelling as that narrative is, it’s counterproductive. Most of us think ‘pausing’ means taking a huge time out: a trip to the Carribean, a retreat to the mountains… But who has time for that? In times of wild change, leaders need to come back to center over and over while on the run – much like tennis players return to a balanced stance after every stroke.

The most accessible pause button is the breath. Slowing and lowering the breath, even for 30 seconds, changes your inner circuitry. It stills the inner winds. It lowers anxiety and returns oxygen to the brain. With oxygen comes clearer thinking.

Try it right now. For the next 60 seconds, relax the muscles in your belly. Gently inhale for four slow counts and exhale for six, letting your belly passively receive and become empty of breath. As you do this, see if you can rest your attention simply on the gentle sensation of that process. At the end of that minute, compare how you feel now vs. a minute ago.  What do you notice?

If you have more than one minute to pause, by all means take it. Take lunch and eat good food. Take a walk around the block between meetings. Listen to a piece of music you love. Get in the pool or the gym. Leave work on time for once. Take a mental health day. Take a social media sabbatical for an hour or two. The goal is to interrupt the spinning so that you can find your ground.

Once you’ve found the stillness of the eye of the hurricane, it’s crucial to get grounded before you go back into the fray. Because if you’re not reengaging from your center, then you’ll reengage from a place of stress. Which, I’m going to guess, may not be you at your best.

In the chaos of disruption, where do you turn to remember who you are, what you stand for and what really matters? Maybe you find your ground in a personal mission statement or a set of core values. Maybe you find it in a tenet or practice from your faith tradition. Maybe nature is what grounds you. Maybe a favorite writer, poet or musician helps you find your center. Maybe your friends or family bring you back.

Where and how you get grounded is a deeply personal and intimate thing. What matters is that you know where your ground is and you know how to find it. The more chaotic the environment, the more often you need to return to your center.

What about you?

Most leaders agree that catching their breath is vital in disruptive times.  Yet so few of them actually do it. What about you? How are you at ‘finding the eye?’ If your answer is “Not so great,” what stops you from doing what you know is so important? Maybe it’s a bit of arrogance: a tacit belief that you, uniquely, can lead with mastery while off balance. Maybe a sense of powerlessness: a sense that you would catch your breath if you could, but conditions won’t permit it. Maybe it just feels self indulgent. Or maybe you just never learned how.

Start somewhere. What is one action you can take today to lead more skillfully in the hurricane of crisis?  Who will support you in carrying that out?


When Grace Gets Kicked To The Curb

The election of Donald Trump reflects a longing in many Americans for a “grittier” form of national leadership. His supporters see him as someone who will kick some butt and get stuff done; who tells it like it is, whether you like it or not; who breaks convention in pursuit of a goal; who draws clear distinctions between “us” and “them;” who won’t back down from a fight.

Fair enough. Grit is a critical component of leadership. It brings needed clarity, urgency and momentum. It sets ambitious goals and fosters bold innovation. It’s unafraid to break things in order to build them.

Here’s the catch. Neither grit nor grace can stand on its own. Each element needs the other to be a positive, productive force. From that perspective, one of Trump’s greatest leadership vulnerabilities is his over reliance on grit as the sole lever for influence.

He is hardly alone in that. Of all the challenges that thwart my clients’ effectiveness, grit-dependency is easily the most common. Crippled by a one-note strategy for influence, the leader’s impact is predictable: directness becomes intimidation, accountability becomes weapon, and reinvention becomes chaos. And what happens when leaders intimidate, punish and destabilize? Followers check out, in-fight or rebel – which will slow, halt or reverse the very momentum that the grit leader is trying to create. What was once a strength becomes a weakness and begets dysfunction.

When grit-based leaders embrace elements of grace, such as compassion, humility and deep listening, their grit is restored to health. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s about results. When leaders right the blend of grit and grace, their effectiveness soars, morale increases and results improve. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work.

So by all means, strive for results.  But whether you’re leading a country, a corporation, a team or a household – and want to do it well – don’t kick grace to the curb.

Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane

“Crisis.” You hear that word a lot these days: in the media, in the coffee shop, around the world and around the kitchen table. We speak the word in anxious tones because we equate ‘crisis’ with ‘catastrophe.’ Trust me, I’m right there with you. But I’ve started to wonder. Could the way we traditionally relate to crisis actually limit our ability to respond well to it?

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ In this light, a crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. It is something that shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. By this definition, events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the internet and the 2008 housing crash were all crises. More recently, there’s been Brexit and the U.S election. Whether you view these events as positive or negative, they have fundamentally changed our lives.

So here we are. The wild storm of change is bearing down and you’re leading in it.  People are looking to you for guidance, but you may be thinking, “How do I lead others in terrain that’s alien to me?” Or in plainer terms, “How do I lead when I don’t have a clue?”

The wild storm of change is bearing down and people are looking to you for guidance.

If you’re leading in times of profound disruption, it’s natural to hunker down, drive yourself harder and work longer – as if somehow you could get it all in order. But you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to tame the hurricane of change. You’ll be overtaken if you try to outrun it and upended if you ignore it.

The safest place to be in a hurricane is the eye, where things are quiet and still. There is such a place within you, where you can go to regain your balance, strength and sense of perspective. Those who are following you need you to go there. They need you at your best so that they can be at theirs. The eye of the storm is where you can go to carry out four “tasks of leadership renewal” that are vital in times of crisis:

  • Catching one’s breath (if even for a moment)
  • Confronting what’s happening now
  • Connecting to what’s essential and enduring
  • Charting the next right step

In upcoming posts, we’ll explore each of these tasks in more depth. In the meantime, I invite you to notice what shifts if you view a ‘crisis’ as a radical separation from what was. Such a departure is, at its heart, a transformation. And in it, we will experience not only the tragedy of loss but also the triumph of invention – if we don’t lose our way.

You Can’t Lead People You Don’t Respect

I haven’t written a post for months. Here in the United States, the most stunning lessons on leadership – often coming in the form of what not to do – have been unfolding on the national stage. But we are so polarized around these two ‘teachers’ that I haven’t been able to mention their names without stirring up a fight.

So this isn’t a post about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It is a reflection on the clearest realization that’s emerged for me from this election: you can’t effectively lead those you don’t respect. You can’t garner allegiance from people you want to deport. You won’t inspire anyone you deem deplorable. People just won’t follow someone who thinks nothing of them. While that lesson’s been on global display, it applies to everyone who leads – whether in families, communities or companies.

I once had a corporate client who told me in our first meeting, “I’m surrounded by idiots, but I don’t let my feelings toward them show.” And he wondered why he couldn’t keep staff and wasn’t getting promoted. In his mind, he wouldn’t have to be harsh if his people were actually competent; he’d have that promotion if only his superiors weren’t so insecure.

I told him one simple thing: “Bill, you can do all the right things and say all the perfect words, but what people will experience is your heart.” Something about that connected with him and we got to work. The main goal of our work was for him to learn how to see and believe in the basic value of every person. This simple recognition is the cornerstone of the ‘grace’ side of leadership.

So Bill started noticing his own harsh conclusions and questioning their validity. He learned to key into every person’s brilliance – even if that brilliance didn’t intersect with the requirements of their job. He engaged in ‘lovingkindness’ meditation to cultivate compassion for himself and others.

Bill never sacrificed his intelligence, his drive or his high standards. He didn’t become “wimpy” or “weak.” He was the same brilliant, ambitious man who was finally able to lead, simply by cultivating a fundamental respect for others. Over time, staff turnover stopped. He helped people ill-suited for their jobs to transition to roles that aligned with their strengths. He was promoted to the C-Suite, actively supported by staff and top leadership. Even more important to Bill, he and his family forged a deeper level of intimacy than they’d ever had before.

To be an effective leader, Bill didn’t need new techniques or better talking points. He simply needed a respectful heart.

How Do We Loosen the Grip of Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias is the new hot topic in diversity these days. But what is it, exactly? Why are we talking about it now? And what do we do about it? Here’s my take on those questions.

What is it?

The best way to define implicit bias is to contrast it against explicit bias. Explicit biases are the conscious judgments that we hold about other people/groups and that intentionally drive our individual, collective and/or systemic behavior. Examples include segregation, sexual harassment, bullying of LGBT people and racial profiling. On the other hand, implicit biases are discriminatory behaviors and outcomes that arise without intent. They’re often born from judgments/beliefs that we don’t even know we have and may not even agree with consciously. Here are some examples of implicit bias:

  • executives’ making important decisions on the golf course
  • the use of unintentionally denigrating turns of phrase (e.g., “He’s so articulate!” “That is so gay.”)
  • expectations of women to be the meeting note-takers and corporate party planners
  • unspoken organizational norms that pressure people to be someone they’re not in order to be accepted or successful.

While one form of bias is overt and the other more subtle, they can have similarly profound effects – not only on those on the losing end of bias, but also on the health, productivity and harmony of our collective engagement.

Why now?

Implicit bias has come to the fore for a couple of reasons. The more hopeful reason is that, having significantly reduced explicit bias from our workplace policies and practices, we can now address the subtler vestiges of inequity. It’s like manually removing the fragments of computer code that are left on your hard drive after you uninstall a program.

The other reason we’re talking about implicit bias now is that, 50 years after the civil and women’s rights eras, we’re stunned at the inequities that still exist. Reducing explicit bias hasn’t made bias disappear; it’s simply driven it underground. It’s still shaping our landscape in powerful ways, but is harder now to detect and address.

What can we do?

To address implicit bias, we have to be willing to see it, to claim the reality of it without collapsing into shame or blame, and to commit to action. I’m going to explore it through the lens of gender, but the principles apply to all dimensions of “diversity.”

We know we need to start with awareness – but what do we look for to check where implicit bias is operating? I’ve developed an “AEIOU” model to help guide your inquiry:

A = Access.  Inclusion in the conversations and relationships that matter
E = Expression.  Permission to speak freely and fully
I = Influence. Power to sway group opinion
O = Opportunity. Receipt of plumb assignments and promotions
U = Updraft. Dominant social status and systemic advantage

Let’s dive in to each of these.

Access. Are there any people or subgroups in your organization who just seem to be more “in the know” than others? Folks who always seem to just be there when the off-line decisions are made? Then this person or group enjoys the implicit bias of “access” tipping in his/her/their favor. They won’t even see that the door of access is wider for them, but others will feel it acutely.

How does this show up?  Working parents – mostly mothers – often face access bias, since a lot of business happens after hours and on weekends. The guys on the golf course don’t intend to exclude women – in fact they may wish that more women would join them there. But events held outside of 9 – 5 implicitly block mothers (and primary care-giving fathers) from important goings-on.

What you can do. Pay attention to patterns. Starting noticing who’s always got the boss’ ear, who always seems to be ‘in the know,’ who hangs out together on off-hours. If you see demographic patterns, implicit bias may be at work. Beware the inner circle; challenge yourself to create a bigger welcome mat.

Expression. Watch to see if certain people or subgroups in your organization have greater latitude than others to express themselves freely. Are some folks allowed to expound on their ideas, while others are frequently interrupted? Are some folks forgiven when they misspeak or show emotion, where others are penalized for it?   These are signs of expression bias.

What does that look like on a practical level? I hear this all the time: that a man can forcefully speak his mind and be seen as passionate. whereas a woman who speak vigorously will be labeled as bitchy, shrill or angry. To avoid getting stuck with those career-limiting labels, women may mute their strong opinions, only to receive performance feedback that they are not perceived as a leader because they don’t speak up enough. It’s a maddening catch-22 that ties women and minorities in knots – while largely escaping the majority’s awareness.

What you can do. Notice patterns in how you interpret others’ behavior. Watch your thoughts when a woman speaks directly vs. when a man does. Watch who gets the airtime in your meetings. Are the members of one particular demographic group “just quiet,” while others are more vocal? If you see these signs of expression bias, build in processes and norms that encourage everyone to speak and to be heard. If someone says that you don’t listen to her, resist the urge to label her a whiner or oversensitive. Consider that she may be accurately describing a reality of which you’re unaware.  Say thank you, explore it and act on it.

Influence. Do some people or groups regularly sway decisions and conversations, while others’ ideas routinely go “splat” on the conference room table?  If there’s a pattern to who influences and who doesn’t, there may be some form of implicit bias in action. One of my favorite satirical cartoons sums up what this looks like in practice:

Miss Triggs










What you can do: Meetings are a great place to notice influence bias. You can keep written track of who gets the group’s attention; who changes the direction of the conversation; whose ideas get adopted. And whose don’t. If you’re too “in the mix” to do this kind of tracking, pull in an organization development consultant to do it for you. You’ll learn a lot.

One of the most powerful things you can do to even the influence playing field is to actively acknowledge the input of the unheard. Like this: “Wait a minute, I want to go back to the point that Peggy made.” or “Bill, thanks for restating Carlos’ earlier suggestion. Like you, I support his idea.” Folks will follow your lead and start paying more attention to the people they’ve overlooked.

Opportunity. Opportunity bias can show up in a lot of ways. Maybe there’s a well-respected woman in your organization whose career is progressing more slowly than male counterparts’. Maybe white employees tend to get the reputation for being “high performing” after one successful project, whereas women and minorities have to mount a series of successes before they’re similarly regarded. Maybe the boss has a couple of “go-to” people for quick-turnaround or high-visibility projects. If the go-to folks share traits in common with the boss, there may be implicit bias at play.

What you can do. Go back over the special tasks and projects you’ve assigned over the last year. Who got them and who didn’t? Pay attention to how long it takes you to trust your male employees vs. the females; whites vs. people of color, straights vs. gays. If you notice that there are groups or individuals that you’ve overlooked, make a development plan to get as many of them as possible into your go-to group.

Updraft. Updraft refers to the phenomenon of ‘privilege’. In nature, an updraft is a warm current of air that lifts and carries something in flight, such that it rises and coasts with minimal effort. Updrafts occur in cultures too, where certain groups enjoy the ease of policies, structures and resources that were constructed with them in mind. Those who are placed into those cushy currents don’t even see their advantage – it’s just how things are. But have you ever heard women or minorities say, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far”?  That sums up life in the headwinds.

Historically, groups in the U.S. updraft have been whites, men, heterosexuals and the wealthy. And although the currents are shifting, these are still the groups that fly with the greatest relative ease.

What you can do: The question isn’t, “Is there an updraft?” The answer to that is yes. Rather, we need to ask, “How can those of us riding the updraft make more room?” “What systems can we reinvent so others may join the warm currents of favor?” Last, and perhaps most important, “How do we in the updraft tolerate the discomfort we may feel when our position in the current is shared by others?”

Addressing implicit bias takes commitment and persistence. And yes – to eliminate the impact of implicit bias is a massive personal and collective effort. Yet there is so much we can do to reduce bias harmful effects on people, productivity and organizational health. And it starts with each of us. Simple as A,E,I,O,U.


Want To Increase Your Personal Power? Try Not Giving A Whit.

I was sitting across the table from Gail, a female executive in the publishing industry. We were talking about how she came to find her power as a woman leader. She said, “The day I stopped giving a sh*t was the day that everything changed for me.”

She continued. “I had an epiphany one day: this job and these people’s opinions don’t define me. I was done trying to pretzel myself into a form that was palatable to everyone else but unrecognizable to myself. And as soon as I figured that out, I felt free. And guess what. That’s when people really started listening to me.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard versions of this story from my female clients. Over and over again, the influence or promotions that eluded women finally came to them when they stopped giving a whit. Here are a few examples:

Brenda gauged her own success by what others thought of her and whether or not they promoted her. What she had lost sight of was what she wanted, what work and environments really worked for her. Once she started navigating from her own reference points, she was able to communicate much more powerfully: not from a place of “Do you like me?” but from “Here’s what I need.” She’s now poised for promotion, and awaits this decision with her worth and inner clarity in tact … regardless of the outcome.

Jill was a real team player, consistently lauded for her willingness to step in and get the job done. Due to attrition in her department, Jill had assumed another person’s leadership duties in addition to her own. Fueled by the “attagirls” she kept receiving for her selflessness, she’d continued doing both jobs for over 18 months. But she hadn’t received better performance appraisals, a promotion or more pay.  She was exhausted, resentful and stressed out. She finally hit her breaking point and didn’t care about the consequences. She stormed into her boss’ office and informed him that she would only do this double duty for two more weeks. His reply? “I was wondering when you’d speak up.” Two weeks later, they hired someone to take on the extra job.

Susan, a law firm manager, reported to the firm’s three senior lawyers. They were all tough-minded, male, and 20 years older than she was. Because of these differences, Susan found it very difficult to influence her bosses. On one important issue on which they wouldn’t budge, Susan got totally fed up and read her bosses the riot act. Their response was, “That was great. You should do that more often.” Her forceful argument is what swayed them, but her not giving a whit is what emboldened her to speak the way she did.

Sometimes, organizations take women more seriously when women take organizations less seriously. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that it’s risky to let it fly. And I fully recognize that many women don’t have the luxury to take that risk; they need this job and can’t afford to rock the boat. But I have also seen women pull the plug on their own authority and success by over-accommodating others’ opinions and perceptions.

The experience of Gail and these other clients offers an interesting challenge: what might you gain by not giving a whit – before you hit your breaking point?

What about you?

  1. Have you ever tried to change yourself to accommodate others, for little or no return?
  2. What was the cost of that accommodation and how do you feel about that?
  3. Have you ever had the experience of taking a risk when you stopped caring about the outcome, and had that risk pay off?
  4. What did you learn from that experience?
  5. What small, reasonable experiments could you make to bring “not giving a whit” behavior forward before you reach your wits’ end?
  6. How will you gauge the impact of your experiments?
  7. What are the boundaries of what you’re willing to try?  What risks would be irresponsible or reckless?

Let us know what you discover!