Checking Your Bias as a Leader

Introduction

These past few weeks we’ve seen the Black Lives Matter movement create incredible energy and action around long-standing issues in American society. During this time, I have been reflecting on my own experiences and conversations, particularly within Credit Karma. One of these I’d like to share with you is a key learning moment during our Charlotte Unconscious Bias training, way back in August of 2019. 

On that day, we had just finished a small group discussion on ways we tend to identify ourselves, and noted that people of a minority or protected class tended to identify primarily by that class. In other words, if you were a white male, you were more likely to identify as “engineer,” “husband” and so forth, while if you were Black or female or had another identity that placed you within a protected class, your self-identification tended to focus on those minority identities.

While this revelation was thought-provoking in its own right, I was stunned by a comment made during the subsequent discussion. My colleague related how her self-identification as a Black woman felt apart from or even counter to how she was expected to show up and present at work. In other words, she felt she could not bring her “full self” to work  — an ideal that we at Credit Karma tend to believe we’ve reached and even pride ourselves on. 

As I ponder how we are conditioned to show up at Credit Karma, how we present feedback and how we frame growth opportunities, it occurs to me that there is a gap between how we talk about diversity as a strength and many of the practices we engage in, especially as leaders. The issue is not that we deliberately undermine or ignore diversity. The issue is that diversity is challenging in a way that our practices don’t always address. Rather than helping us face the challenge, many of our learned “best practices” on conducting ourselves as leaders actually bias us toward familiarity and self-constructed ideals of performance instead of seeing, valuing and empowering the diversity that exists in our teams. In the process, our bias can end up minimizing or even rejecting the diversity we so vocally pride ourselves on.

This moment is both painful and inspiring as the United States grapples with its history of racism and brutality towards people of color. The challenge to improve the way our society functions for marginalized communities is squarely in front of us — as leaders, as allies, as people who are privileged in so many ways.

I’ve read and listened to a number of conversations with Black leaders in the last few weeks— locally, nationally, and within Credit Karma. Many of these conversations include some form of the question, posed from an “outsider” point of view to a community leader, of “What can I do to help?” Let’s start pointing this question inward. Achieving lasting impact in this moment will require a large number of us to ask ourselves “What can I do to help?”, to take stock of our own unique perspective, resources, creativity, energy, and commitment, and then to follow-up on that reflection by taking action. Regrouping and renewing the effort on how we check our biases as managers is a part of my personal answer to that question, and I hope an answer for each of us. To paraphrase from Ken in his recent email, we have distance yet to go within and outside of Credit Karma.

With the help of our D&I and Talent Development Teams, we are developing some content that we hope will shed some light on leadership challenges we face in a company that seeks to embrace diversity and act inclusively. We are specifically targeting people managers, because they have both a great challenge and a great opportunity for impact. That said, you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. We hope that what we share is valuable to everyone as they think about how biases play out on our teams, and how we can better honor the diversity that’s already in our midst.

– Andy Jenkins

Overview

In this first post of a two-part series, we will explore everyday scenarios where managers have an opportunity to recognize bias within themselves and among their teams. In Part 2, we’ll introduce a framework for managers and team members to help build a practice of addressing bias. We plan to hold ongoing conversations with people leaders around these topics; D&I, Talent Development and senior leadership will partner to create a container for these conversations and welcome people leaders to reach out if you’d like to help!

Issues that open the door for bias

Issue #1: Decision without Discussion

  • Practice: Most managers come from an individual contributor background where they’ve demonstrated effective decision making through deep subject matter expertise and experience. Managing a team requires a shift in mindset from being the “expert problem-solver” to empowering the team to solve its own problems. This shift can be challenging. A manager who responds as the “expert problems solver” misses the opportunity to involve others and refers to their own biases from personal experience.
  • How might this affect business: The challenge is to avoid the temptation to solve the problem quickly and without input from your team. This may seem most efficient, but unless you engage your team in the process, you may not come to the best solution and you are not leveraging the wisdom of your team. Empowering your team, using your coworkers’ expertise and listening to their diverse perspectives will lead to richer solutions and better results for the business.  
  • How might this affect inclusion: Passing up an opportunity to get perspectives from the team can feel disempowering to its members. They may feel as if their voices don’t matter and feel reluctant to share their ideas in the future. And, having a prescribed way of operating gives a signal that there are limited ways to address a problem “correctly” on the team.

Issue #2: Unconsidered meetings and their dynamics

  • Practice:  We’ve all been in meetings where only a few people are participating. This can be even more obvious when working with remote colleagues who join a meeting but are not active in the conversation. This happens for various reasons. Sometimes it’s the same people who tend to speak up. Sometimes there may be people who have specific expertise to offer. Sometimes people may even talk over one another and silence others at the table.
  • How might this affect business: The value of a meeting (as opposed to asynchronous communication like email or messaging) is in the opportunity to bring people together to do something that they couldn’t do nearly as well separately. If a meeting isn’t opening space for all participants to contribute, the efficacy of the meeting is diminished and valuable ideas go unheard. Ultimately the business loses out when contributions are not shared by everyone.
  • How might this affect inclusion:  When meetings are dominated by a few people, it leads to a team dynamic in which people feel disengaged and reluctant to share their input. The range of voices and perspectives in a room are not shared with the broader group. Often, the recurrence of meetings means participants develop patterns in how they contribute, and these patterns can be easily confused as saying more about “the person” than “the situation” (this is called attribution bias).  Additionally, the lack of dissenting voices in a meeting is not the same as agreement, but operating with that belief can feed confirmation bias and groupthink. 

Issue #3: The trap of the “go to” team member

  • Practice: Managers often have a default individual they go to with urgent or high-visibility tasks. This happens for various reasons, both intentional and unintentional. However, defaulting to the same individuals limits opportunities for others to engage and offer their unique perspective, and it diminishes their opportunities around professional development.
  • How might this affect business: Assigning key work to a relative few team members can create bottlenecks and affect overall productivity. Overdependence on one or two “star players,” rather than developing the broader team bench, can mean greater risk for the team’s success and atrophy for the team members who aren’t able to contribute.  
  • How might this affect inclusion: Often, we may find ourselves turning to those we find “easier or familiar to work with.” And often what can inform our sense of ease in working together relates to how we are similar. This is called affinity bias, and it plays out against both immutable characteristics like gender, race/ethnicity or sexual orientation and socialized characteristics like similar work experience, education or communication styles. If we allow our affinity biases to inform most of our decisions in working with the team, we are actively excluding those who fall outside our affinity groups.

Issue #4: Developing teams homogeneously

  • Practice: Evaluating team members — for hiring, for regular feedback, for promotion, for development — with a universal bar that must be met rather than a baseline that guides.

    The way we evaluate team members tends to focus on a set of skills that we believe are relevant to the job and that strongly map to our own “template for success.” For example, with engineers we tend to focus on deep technical knowledge, aptitude for learning new technologies, communication, collaboration, mentorship and the ability to deliver reliably.
  • How might this affect business: In orienting toward a universal and singular template that must be satisfied, we limit the definition of success for our team members and undervalue the additive contributions that are unique to each member. Adhering too closely to a format for success also standardizes how we approach and solve problems in work that is increasingly complex.
  • How might this affect inclusion: Diversity can be undervalued and under-leveraged when we are attached to narrow definitions for success. Team members can feel pressure to conform rather than leverage their unique strengths. Personal strengths are often important as part of one’s self-concept/identity; in the face of pressure to conform, both personal strengths and identity can be painfully dismissed.

Issue #5: Prescriptive social connection

  • Practice: Bringing teams together socially is a great way to foster connection and belonging. Social gatherings are often done in a limited range of ways that may not be inclusive to the entire team and operate relative to the planner’s bias for what constitutes a good time. For example, happy hours are a common way for teams to connect, but they don’t signal belonging to those who abstain from drinking for personal or social reasons. Scheduling events after work can often exclude parents with child care responsibilities.  
  • How might this affect business:  While social connection matters, personal relationships can sometimes be overvalued as a tool for helping teams achieve their business goals. Activities that feel like “forced fun” or engage only a subset of the team may reduce overall morale.
  • How might this affect inclusion:  On one hand, having limited formats for socializing can exclude team members. On the other hand, a team that relies on social participation can indirectly punish or “mark down” team members who don’t participate (affinity bias).

Conclusion

Above we’ve identified a few ways in which our learned “best practices” as leaders can strongly engage our biases if we don’t pause and examine how we engage with our team members. In our next post, we’ll introduce a framework for thinking about bias in a leadership setting. We’ll then apply this framework to common leadership scenarios that can trigger biases, and show some alternative paths to engage more fully with everyone on our team.

About the Co-Authors

Ash Coleman, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, has formalized Credit Karma’s D&I efforts by building programs and community engagement at scale. In her career, Ash has gone from being a professional chef to leading Quality Engineering teams. She created her own business in Quality and D&I, and continues to share her expertise regularly at tech and D&I conferences and forums.

Jared Hoffman, Senior Leadership Development Partner, partners across Credit Karma to support and grow leadership capabilities through learning programs and coaching. He draws on his experience from a range of People Operations roles in tech and higher education.

About the Author

Andy Jenkins

Andy Jenkins, Senior Director of Engineering, leads the Credit Karma Tax and Savings engineering teams. In 2016, he led the establishment of Credit Karma's Charlotte office, where teams now span engineering, marketing, member support, product, talent, and more.