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There has been much furore about the recently leaked memo written by a Google employee in response to Google’s unconscious bias training and other initiatives to even out the numbers of men and women who work in tech roles at the business.

The author of the memo uses as the basis for his argument research conducted that shows differences between men and women on dimensions such as assertiveness, agreeableness and emotionality. He argues that these biological differences in part account for the low number of women in coding. What he does not address is what the root causes of these differences (which according to the original author of the research are very small and of no significance in work) are. From a neurological perspective, there are no differences between male and female brains, and therefore there are no differences between men and women in terms of ability or interest. The differences identified in the original research are as a result of nurture and not nature. In other words, it’s the stereotypes that are held about men and women which have so influenced boys and girls in their formative years that these differences become true in later life. By citing the research out of context and failing to consider the cause for the differences identified, the author is propagating stereotypes that are held about women.

Further, when he considers the qualities of leadership (which he linked to assertiveness) he is demonstrating that he holds a masculine stereotype of leadership, and this way of thinking can lead to women being less likely to be considered for a leadership role. Similarly, in relation to emotionality, the author stated that women are more emotional than men and thus may not cope so well with high stress jobs. This view propagates that women are too emotional and decrease their chances of being considered for high stress roles, thus ultimately blocking progression into senior roles which are often seen as high stress.

Overall, the Google memo is an example of the way women face “double binds” in the workplace. If they behave in a stereotypically masculine way, they are penalized for not being feminine enough. Alternatively, if they behave in a stereotypically feminine manner, they are penalized for being weak (or in this case neurotic and too agreeable). This form of bias, known as an attribution error, often excludes women from roles that require leadership - keeping them out of traditionally masculine fields, and ultimately holding them back. In response, we must continue to raise awareness of bias in a way that includes and engages all, and recognise that whilst there may be some small differences between men and women, these differences are firstly not genetic, and secondly have no impact on the ability of women to perform effectively in the workplace.

We have been working with professional services firms for over ten years and during that time have anecdotally noticed the focus on technical expertise. Although this technical expertise has clear benefits for clients, we have also noticed, that there is less focus on development from a leadership perspective, which in many firms is seen as less important. From a talent pipeline perspective this has often resulted in highly talented and successful individuals not progressing into key leadership roles, not because they do not have the ability to do so, but because they have not had the opportunity to develop these skills or have not had the feedback to help them prioritise them as a development area.

Recently we decided to test this anecdotal experience with some data. We looked at data that we held for lawyers (a profession where technical ability is very prized) against a wide range of people with similar levels of experience who worked in industry. The ability to lead and manage people did indeed differentiate the successful lawyers from the less successful lawyers (in terms of future promotion to Partner) as it did the people working in a corporate environment. However, the difference in people management skills between those lawyers that were promoted and those that were not was smaller than between those promoted and not promoted in a corporate environment, and overall, those in a corporate environment were better at people management than the group of lawyers.

This is the first piece of more rigorous evidence we have to support our anecdotal observations, and it raises the question as to how generalizable this finding is for other technical roles such as engineers, actuaries, accountants, medical consultants to name but a few? Whatever the answer is to that question, the best lawyers are those that have the soft skills to lead and manage people, with underlying behaviours and skills such as ‘building relationships’, ‘questioning and listening’, ‘coaching skills’. These fundamental skills also overlap with skills such as ‘influencing’, ‘business development’ and ‘building relationships’. What this means in reality is that highly gifted and successful lawyers are promoted into senior leadership roles with a set of leadership skills that do not match their technical capabilities.

Why is this important? In our opinion they relate to longer term metrics in organisations such as engagement and motivation, and diversity related issues such as inclusion, attraction and promotion of underrepresented groups. What this means in practice is that these skills need to be considered in people development at a much earlier stage than they currently are. Certainly, for lawyers and, very possibly in other roles where technical ability is highly prized.

360 degree feedback (or multi-rater feedback) processes are very widely used in organisations (for example, estimated to be 90% of fortune 500 organisations in the USA). The strengths of 360 seem to be clear: they can heighten self-awareness by holding a mirror up to the individual. Self-awareness, as we know, is the cornerstone of personal development. It offers individuals the choice to change or not to change, and in particular ideas about the areas in which they need to change.However, engagement of the individual is key to the success of 360 and as a result, the potential value of 360 is frequently lost in my experience. Here are a number of reasons why:

• Questionnaires are too long, with a question for every single behavioural indicator in the competence framework. The consequence of this is that respondents put less effort into completion, getting frustrated about the length of time taken, and responding at speed without really considering what each item means. This can result in bland, middle of the road feedback. Better to carefully choose the items to be representative of the competencies in the framework. It should be possible to complete a 360 in about 10 minutes.

• Questions are too generic, poorly phrased and the rating scale has not been well thought through. Again, all of these can be an annoyance to respondents. Generic behaviours are difficult to apply to a specific role and the respondent can struggle to interpret them into something concrete that they can relate to. Poorly defined rating scales can result in 'middle of the road feedback', with no differentiation between effective and less effective performance. The net effect of all of these is that the recipient receives vanilla feedback that is of little use to them. Better to carefully write questions that have a clear relevance to the role and to use a well-defined rating scale that will allow you to genuinely differentiate between levels of performance – even in a group of high performing individuals.

• Reports are too long and detailed. The length of reports depends on the number of question items as well as the level of detail that is reported. (I've seen reports that are up to a daunting 40 pages in length!). For example, reports that provide feedback against every single question can appear to be very useful. However the law of diminishing returns is relevant – the more question items there are which are reported individually, the less valuable and less engaging the feedback can become. From experience, recipients of such reports can at times become overly hung up on the detail. This is unhelpful, particularly where items are badly worded. This problem can be exacerbated when feedback indicates the frequency of scores for every single item. In my experience, this can have one of two effects: the recipient either rationalises the feedback, e.g. "well, only one person said that, and I think I know who that might be, so I'll ignore it". Whilst this is useful data in terms of their approach to receiving feedback, and is in itself diagnostic, the result is that the recipient can disengage. Alternatively, a recipient may become overly concerned about the detail.

"I need to know who said that", thus focussing more on the specifics and what one person said rather than engaging with the overall message that the feedback provides.

If you want to get the most out a 360 process, therefore, focus on using fewer questions of higher quality (i.e. expressed in concrete terms that are relevant to the role), ensure that you use a well-defined rating scale and don’t over engineer the feedback report – just because data can be cut and sliced in a particular way does not mean it is better. Sometimes, less is more!

There have been two recent high profile failures of leadership in the headlines: Rupert Murdoch at News International and, perhaps even more dramatically, Bob Diamond at Barclays Bank.  Isn’t it interesting that both are prepared to take credit for the success of their businesses, but much slower to accept responsibility when things go wrong?  Bob Diamond has made an estimated £98M in the six years since he has been at Barclays, much of it in bonus payments for the success of the bank.  No doubt he would say that he deserves this due to his effective leadership.  So far, however, there is no sign of a similar degree of responsibility for the recent LIBOR scandal though.  Why is this?

From a psychological perspective Attribution Theory can help us to explain this behaviour.

Attribution theory is the process by which individuals explain the cause of either their own or others’ behaviour.     For example, I’m a good driver, and when I cut someone up in a roundabout it’s because I’m in a hurry to get to an important meeting.  When someone else cuts me up it’s because they are a bad driver.  In the context of Barclays:  Bob Diamond sees himself as  a good leader who has contributed to the significant growth of the Bank, hence he deserves his bonus. However, the recent LIBOR scandal is not his fault, but the fault of certain traders.  These are bad traders.

Essentially it is a form of rationalising ones own actions. The impact on others, though, is that people who tend to rationalise like this come across as unprepared to accept responsibility and as arrogant. Ultimately, as in Bob Diamond’s case, it results in leadership derailment and an apparent inability to learn from critical mistakes.

In the world of internet technology, the race is on to make every user’s experience of the web as personal as it can be. Search engines - such as Google - are tracking every search and click that we make, and depending on the choice, will use that information to target advertising at us. Information is passed on, within seconds, from one website to another, and ultimately on to third parties so that advertising can be focused more effectively.

So, what’s the harm in that? On one level, not much. Given the amount of information on the web, personalisation might feel like a good thing. However, personalisation also influences the outcome of search results, for example by changing the order in which results are displayed on the page, and overall the number of ‘hits’ you receive in searches. The developers of search engines know that most people do not go beyond the first page when looking through search results and clicking on a link. It’s in their interests, therefore, to put the results that you are most likely to enjoy at the top of the list. They achieve this by tracking your history and using this to tailor results for you.

And here in lies a problem. A very common bias in human beings is ‘confirmatory bias’ ( a form of unconscious bias) which is when we tend to ignore information that does not support our view and focus too much on information that does support our view. Now think what this means for us when a search engine presents us with personalised search results. In practice, through personalising my search results, the search engine will tend to prioritise items that agree with my point of view over those that might contradict my view because historically that is what I have tended to click on. In my daily search for news, therefore, the chances of me hitting upon analysis that contradicts my own view is reduced. Some might argue that this is the same with choosing printed news. Not so. When I choose printed news from the newsstand, I make a conscious decision of which paper I buy and can consciously choose to read papers with differing political affiliations. On the web, the choice is a less conscious one as I will not always be aware of the political affiliations of the news source. Thus Yahoo, Google, Ask and the like could be narrowing our minds.

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