Supervising from Strengths: Understanding Your Own Biases

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How do we lead from our staffs’ strengths if we have biases about their strengths? Learn how you can review your implicit bias and improve your supervision. The third in a series about supervising from strengths.

I have spent the past month detailing part of my professional journey as a student affairs professional. Highlighted are some of the ways I fell short of building my skills and how I was impacted by the politics that were on-going in the places where I worked. I reflected on the lessons learned from each experience and what I would do differently the next time around.

A common theme that showed up across the decades and types of institutions: not knowing how to ask for better supervision. Sometimes I struggled asking for help. Or I floundered for months, trying to work with a supervisor ill-equipped to help me reach OUR goals.

I always thought I was clear asking for help. Apparently I was wrong.

One thing I took away from the experience is that I was consistently judged for the work I was doing. But only so much as it was a reflection on the department and division I was working for. While the impact was allegedly important to the students I worked with, it was always felt more important to hold me accountable (and punished) than making sure I was fully equipped to manage the situation. In many ways, I was always being managed and supervised for my deficits rather than my strengths.

It left me wondering: where are all of these student affairs managers and leaders learning how to lead their staff teams? This will be the third in a series of posts about supervising to staff strengths, focusing on addresses implicit biases in leadership strengths on your team.

Can Our View of Strengths Have Bias?

Over the last two weeks I have explored the idea of using leadership inventories and assessments to better supervise staff through their strengths. I introduced a personal development management plan to help frame how to get staff to learn, refine and teach a skill related to their strengths in order to better support their personal goals. Both of these lessons have helped me develop skills I would not have otherwise learned through my decades of work in higher education.

But recently, I viewed a webinar offered by the ACPA, through the Commission for Student Involvement. Titled Deconstructing and Reconstructing StrengthsQuest Education Through a Critical Whiteness Lens, the webinar focused on presenting leadership inventories to students, but I believe its application was also useful for working with professionals.

The webinar framed some of the issues that leadership educators, and people who use leadership inventories, have when presenting and offering the inventory descriptions that are touted as being universal in its application. The truth is that the leadership skills demonstrated by one person may be interpreted differently when demonstrated by another person, often based on how we self-identify and the identities of the staff we supervise.

Examples of Biased Strengths Language

One of the examples used the strengths within StrengthsFinder, about a strength like Deliberative. In a leadership context, Deliberative people are described as “Careful. Vigilant. Cautious. Risk-assessor.” For the woman leading the webinar, she shared that these traits can be perceived as feminine, especially as adjectives used to describe the behaviors of White women. Rather than looking for risk or moving to execution without knowing all the outcomes, as these are traits commonly associated with men rather than women.

Listen to people when they say they experience bias. And learn from the experience, so you can change.

Another example presented was how Black women could identify a strength like Command and could then be described as angry or unapproachable by their White peers. So while the inventory identified these characteristics as universally accepted strengths, their perception among some could reinforce negative social prejudices and could show implicit (or explicit) bias against those who hold these types of strengths. If you are familiar with the StrengthsFinder inventory, feel free to review and complete the handout below.

Often, we believe that our work in creating an inclusive leadership is both deliberative and without bias. But we often forget that our understanding about leadership is mired in all sorts of biases based on the dominant culture. Though we believe our intentions may keep us from acting with such explicit biases, we are often influenced by our implicit biases.

What is Implicit Bias

From the Perception Institute: “Thoughts and feelings are “implicit” if we are unaware of them or mistaken about their nature. We have a bias when, rather than being neutral, we have a preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people.

“Thus, we use the term “implicit bias” to describe when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. A fairly commonplace example of this is seen in studies that show that white people will frequently associate criminality with black people without even realizing they’re doing it.”

Whether we like it or not, we often use biases when making decisions. Sometimes these decisions are unconscious or implicit and allow us to engage in automatic thinking. It can also show up in hiring and promotion practices, which accounts for why more men are hired than women in higher education. This can show up in looking for traits we want to see on our teams sometimes categorized as masculine (driven, independent, analytical,competitive) versus feminine (sociable, responsible, dedicated, support). Or it can show up when a hiring manager uses social etiquette often associated with the middle or upper class as a way to add ‘extra points’ to candidates (thank -you notes, post-interview emails, having interviews over meals).

Valuing the Back-Channel

Recently, the idea of thank-you cards came up in a Facebook forum for student affairs practitioners and how people viewed them. Many of the comments started with similarly “I know that no one is really using them to distinguish candidates, but I send them anyway” because a hiring manager might want to receive one.

Or it could be hiring managers using ‘back-channel‘ information about candidates to find and use information against a candidate during the hiring process, rather than rely solely on references received from a candidate. This type of implicit bias by hiring managers, using criteria outside of the job description or the in-person interview, reinforces hiring certain types of people, usually those who reinforce the hiring managers ideas about management or work-style and class comfort.

Do we trust that hiring for strengths will make our team better? Or do we rely on the people with an established network that may lack diversity and deliberate inclusion to bring in new staff?

I believe we can all do better addressing our biases against people and their leadership strengths. But how can you identify and remove these biased behaviors?

How Do I Remove Leadership Biases

I believe we can and should identify when and where we use leadership biases. In particular we need to know and understand if there are patterns to recognize. Or, specific identities that elicit a bias response.

Mark Graybill from suggests the following exercise to identify and minimize leadership biases. “In order to complete the exercise, you need to believe you could have biases and be committed to removing them, or you could simply find justification to perpetuate these biases on the teams you lead. You can begin by identifying those on your team you tend to generally prefer over another.”

The exercise requires you to engage in four steps:

Step 1: Identification

Pick two people: one you would prefer and one you would not prefer.  Other than elusive and hard to describe skills, refer to preferences not explicitly tied to job requirements. It is important to pick two people that you can contrast with regards to preferring one over the other.

Step 2: Introspection

List reasons why you prefer or not prefer each individual and answer the following questions for each reason. You may need to dig deep or get detailed, such as the way they talk or walk.

  • Do I have evidence for this reason and if so, what exactly is it?
  • Given the evidence, should this reason warrant why I prefer or do not prefer this individual?
  • Is this reason appropriate for impacting decisions or is it purely personal?
  • Then play Devil’s advocate and flip the preference polarity by listing why you should prefer the one you generally wouldn’t, and not prefer the one you generally would. Answer the above three questions for each new reason. The purpose is to expose rationale on a more level playing field and causes you to engage counter argument.

Step 3: Take Action

If you have identified someone you may not be giving opportunity to that perhaps you should, then you have something you need to do to change it. A couple of suggestions are as follows:

  • Change how you regard and interact with them. Ensure you get to know this individual more during your one-on-one meetings with them, and pay close attention to how you feel about them and interact with them. In team settings, once again pay close attention being mindful of the fact others will pick up on how you regard and interact with them, and may follow your example.
  • Decide to ignore the inappropriate reasons why you do not prefer them and just decide to prefer them – take a chance. All the other aspects of leadership apply such as expecting success and letting them attain it by empowering them to do so.
  • In assignments try to be balanced as much as possible even though you may not feel comfortable assigning someone you would not prefer to. Again, this isn’t ignoring the fact someone might not have specific and tangible skills required by the assignment.

Step 4: Return to Step 1

Continue Steps 1 through 3 for each member of your team you have contrasting preferences for. As you do so it is hoped to shed light on bias you may have that you should not have and provide opportunity to remove such bias.Effective leaders do not use personal preferences in their judgments about people they are responsible for. The value of a human resource should be predicated on their ability to perform individually and on a team, toward achieving organizational goals.

Living Our Best Intentions

Our best intentions for leading others based on their strengths can be curtailed by our own biases for or against these strengths. It is important for hiring managers and team leaders to use some self-reflection to understand how we view our teams strengths and how we judge them. We can not claim values of inclusion if we are implicitly biased against the people who make our communities diverse!

Just like you, I need to look at how I work with and value these strengths and how my use of expectations regarding strengths sends cues to my values. If you want to chat more about this with me, contact me at this email:


Harvard Business School Working knowledge: Why Employers Favor Men

Cleverism: The Impact of Unconscious Bias on Leadership Decision Making

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About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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