Being a Bias-Conscious Leader

Topics: Assistant Principals, Equity and Diversity

With teacher shortages and dwindling numbers of undergraduate students in education preparation programs, working to minimize biases in decision-making is critical to any improvement initiative.

In March, NAESP hosted a webinar featuring Amy Jin Johnson, executive director of Project Implicit, to help educational leaders revisit and address implicit biases. Johnson listed the “Big 8” cognitive biases, how to recognize them when they arise, and how to mitigate them. They are:

  1. Confirmation bias. This is the underlying tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater credence to evidence that fits with our existing beliefs.
  2. In-group favoritism. We tend to give preferential treatment to people who share aspects of our identity or beliefs: “Like likes like.”
  3. Fundamental attribution error. Believing that people’s personality traits have more influence on their actions compared to the other factors over which they don’t have control.
  4. Halo/home effect. Having positive/negative impressions of people, brands, and products in one area that positively/negatively influence our feelings in another area.
  5. Stereotype threat. The fear of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype and of doing something that confirms it.
  6. Anchoring bias. Relying too heavily on the first piece of information we learn or are given about a topic.
  7. Comparison bias. Evaluating two people (or choices, ideas, etc.) against each other instead of comparing them to an objective standard.
  8. Conformity bias. Taking cues for proper behavior from the actions of others rather than exercising our own independent judgment.

Johnson explained that exploring one’s own biases, attitudes, and stereotypes is the first step in being a bias-conscious leader. She cited several often-used, real-world statements to illustrate how such biases show up in educational spaces.

In-group favoritism is a bias that can cause discord in a school.

These statements are often associated with people of different ethnic groups:

  • “You are really intimidating;”
  • “You use your hands too much;”
  • “You talk too loudly;” and
  • “I thought you were a jerk at first, but now we are good friends.”

We must be aware of the fact that we are often looking for information that confirms our initial perceptions of another person or group of people, Johnson added.

In-group favoritism is a bias that can cause discord in a school and hinder a school leader’s efforts to ensure that every student is successful. When educators favor one group of colleagues and/or students based on race, gender, ability, language, etc., it harms relationships with people who don’t belong to those groups.

When an “Us vs. Them” mentality plays out in schools, it impacts the entire learning environment. And it can easily replicate itself among the student population—for example, when kids who share commonalities only sit with or interface with each other, reinforcing barriers. In-group favoritism can lead to more overt prejudice down the road, Johnson said.

Johnson left leaders with suggestions on how to model inclusive behaviors and take action:

  • Lead from the top;
  • Prepare with bias in mind;
  • Expand your network;
  • Seek contributions and ideas from others;
  • Own up to your mistakes; and
  • Accept and learn from feedback or criticism.

In closing, Johnson reminded leaders to celebrate the small wins in the fight against implicit bias. They will pave the way for bigger wins on your journey toward being a bias-conscious leader.

Jerod Phillips is principal of Cedar Lane Elementary School in Middletown, Delaware.