Cognitive Bias – how aware are you of yours?

Last month we celebrated as NEWTEC Boss, Pat Edwards was crowned the UK Chief Executive of the Year 2017.

It is a title that all the 30 plus Chief Executives, MD’s and Principals in attendance had coveted at our recent Grand Awards 2017 – including me!

Unfortunately, I can never win it even if I could beat off the formidable competition.

This year the field of candidates was yet again of an extremely high quality. There were 16 nominations and our independent judges had to shortlist only 6. The result was that some of the candidates that I thought had a good of chance of winning were eliminated at the first round.

Then the judges were left to choose their winner from the final 6, the candidate with the most votes would be our 2017 Chief Executive of the Year. Who would it be?

The judges had to decide who to choose based purely on the information provided in the submitted nomination form for each candidate.

We at the National Centre for Diversity waited with bated breath to see who the chosen winners would be of our individual awards. It took over a week for the results to be finalised. Finally, our whole team crowded around Gemma’s computer like excited over grown school children, to see who had won each of the awards.

I’ll admit there were some surprises in the way the judge’s decisions had swung.

Then the results for the CEO Award came through – it was Pat Edwards – I immediately expressed pleasure in the fact that this year it was a woman who had won one of the most prestigious awards (or so I thought!).

It was great that a female would break the mould and serve as a fantastic role model to other women. My cognitive biases were kicking in in a very large way. I had pictured a middle-aged, white woman, demure, about 5ft 4” tall, with shoulder length dark hair. I think in the office, we probably all did if truth be told.

After the initial excitement, the team got back into gear. The next job was to get the names to the trophy makers and carry on with the preparations for the Conference and the Grand Awards.

Fast forward to our 2017 Conference, when I saw someone wearing a name badge that read Pat Edwards. I looked at the person’s face and realised two things. Firstly, that this was a person who I had a photo taken with at the 2016 Grand Awards, and secondly that this person was male!

I immediately realised how wrong my assumptions had been, and how vulnerable we all are to our cognitive processing.

I obviously didn’t mention a word to Pat about the glory he was going to have later that evening. I didn’t want to spoil the surprise for him or his colleagues.

I met Pat again 3 or 4 hours later at our Grand Awards evening event. In my eagerness, I mentioned that he had been shortlisted and asked how he felt about it. Pat said “Well I’m trying not to get too excited. I have never won an individual award and I don’t expect to win. I just feel honoured to be shortlisted”.

I thought to myself, in about an hour that is going to all change! I wished him well and walked on to visit the next table thinking what a nice person he was – so down to earth, humble and obviously, a brilliant top-class leader and yet he was not what I had initially envisioned at all.

It was an honour and a privilege for me to present Pat Edwards with the Chief Executive of the Year 2017 award. Pat came onto stage and looked like he was in a moment of stunned disbelief. I asked him to say a few impromptu words. He was so unassuming, humble and shared the glory by praising his team.

I caught up with Pat later and gave him a huge hug and he told me that he was going to call his Mum and that she wouldn’t believe it. He also said in a very self-deprecating way, “actually she’ll probably say something like what? You’re a Chief Executive?”

This simple sentence struck me as it very much linked to my own previous cognitive bias. To me it wasn’t a sentence based on belief in a person’s ability, but more an expectation of who and what makes a CEO.

This very real experience has only strengthened my belief in the work we are doing here at the National Centre for Diversity. We all have biases, both conscious and unconscious, but it’s how we choose to acknowledge these and move forward in a way that allows us and our organisations to progress and operate, with as little negative interference as possible from these biases.