September 17, 2019
By Sherrie Haynie
In addition to gender bias, there may be a less-understood unconscious bias keeping women from leadership positions: personality type.
To put it simply, research done by people development organization The Myers-Briggs Company (who I work for) shows more than two-thirds of those in leadership positions have Myers-Briggs preferences for Thinking, meaning they make decisions based on impersonal criteria. On the other hand, 57-84% of women have the opposite Myers-Briggs preference for Feeling, meaning they make decisions based on individual values and an understanding of how people are affected. This means with women representing only 24% of organizational leadership globally, an entire perspective on decision-making is largely missing.
Backfiring Layoffs: A Case In Over-Reliance On The Thinking Preference
For those who doubt the bottom line is negatively impacted by a lack of Feeling perspective, or focus on how decisions impact individuals, consider the study by Wayne Cascio showing that companies that downsize don’t reap the anticipated cost-savings benefits.
The study found the "immediate negative impact to the remaining employees through reduced employee commitment, lower job satisfaction and loss of trust in company leadership" causes a ripple that leads to tangible negative effects, such as higher turnover and diminished performance.
Particularly troubling was Cascio’s finding that layoffs were highly correlated with voluntary resignations. As Cascio put it, “In my experience, the employees who leave voluntarily are exactly the employees you do not want to lose: they are the top talent, your most marketable and best performing employees.”
More often than not, the findings continue, downsizing companies actually perform worse than companies that don’t conduct layoffs: from 2002-2014, 80% of Fortune’s "100 Best Employers to Work For" outperformed their competitors without layoffs.
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If the numbers show layoffs actually aren’t that likely to save money, why do so many companies look to this tactic as a knee-jerk resort? One reason may be because the people-oriented Feeling perspective isn’t there to check the Thinking perspective and say, “While you’re right that on paper this is going to cut costs, you’re not considering how much we’re going to have to pay in new-hire expenses when we have to replace all the additional valued employees who decide to leave because of this.”
Why Is The Feeling Perspective Missing?
What’s keeping the Feeling perspective out of leadership today? The problem is twofold. First, as mentioned, women are more likely than men to have a Feeling preference. Considering there are fewer women in business leadership than there are men named “John” (paywall), it stands to reason there'll be an imbalance of Thinking/Feeling perspectives in decision-making positions.
But there’s more to it. Among those women in leadership, 70% have preferences for Thinking (which is disproportionately high compared to the overall female population). That’s right: The women who do make it to top positions may actually have more in common (from a decision-making perspective) with the men they’re rubbing shoulders with than with the majority of women in the workforce.
As it turns out, there may be institutional bias against Feeling types in the C-suite. This shouldn’t be too surprising. We’re naturally more comfortable with people who think like us, and we tend to think people who approach decisions the way we do are "thinking clearly." A leadership team or board composed mostly of Thinking types will naturally tend to hire others with Thinking preferences. In this environment, they’ll make decisions that aren’t balanced by the perspective of opposing personality preferences.
The unconscious bias against Feeling types in leadership may be deeply ingrained in our culture — so much so that many women may even have a bias against their own leadership style and doubt their capabilities. As my colleague Lorraine Mills recently put it, “This reinforces the notion that women must exhibit behaviours that are more typically associated with men to be considered for top jobs, as leadership has long been recognised as culturally masculine.”
How do we reverse the effects of unconscious bias and get the Feeling perspective into our leadership decision-making process?
Stemming Unconscious Bias In Hiring
At the hiring level, make sure there’s a balance in the personality preferences of interviewers. A diverse team will serve as a natural safety net, ensuring people with Feeling preferences aren’t institutionally selected against. If you’re lacking interviewers with Feeling preferences (and there’s a good chance you are), you can train your team to reflect on how their questions might undervalue certain characteristics. The Harvard Business Review (registration required) references awareness training as a way to create an organizational conversation about biases and the steps that can be taken to minimize them. Additionally, a seasoned HR specialist should be able to check against these biases.
Ensuring Feeling Preferences Are Considered
Even if people with Feeling preferences are present on your leadership team, you may still find their perspective is overlooked. It may not be as highly valued or, as I mentioned, those with Feeling preferences may second-guess their own decisions to the point they’re reluctant to offer opinions. To prevent this, consider designating a "time-keeper" to ensure time is allotted to hearing all perspectives, keeping the discussion open long enough to include consideration for how the decision aligns with your organization’s values, how it will impact or be perceived by employees and stakeholders and other important Feeling-oriented questions.
Self-Awareness: The Antidote To Unconscious Bias
While you can’t erase all unconscious bias, you can bring much of it to the surface. When unconscious bias becomes "conscious" bias, it becomes manageable. Sound leadership decisions should incorporate multiple viewpoints and perspectives. Surround yourself with people who are different from you. It’s comfortable to work with like-minded team members, but we can put systems in place to hold ourselves accountable by challenging our go-to decision-making style.
Organizations that learn to appreciate the styles, values and associated behaviors of the Feeling preference will see the benefits of this diversity of thought in leadership, in balance with the styles, values and associated behaviors of the Thinking preference.