Back when I had hair, I was Assistant Director of a museum. This was my first management role and my first management class covered a kitchen sink of topics — from hiring practices to sexual harassment. But there was nothing on creating a team or leading a team.
Until the last activity on the last day.
The team assignment was to ‘survive in a desert.’ Apparently there was a plane crash and we were the survivors. We received a list of items that survived the crash, but we could only choose a certain number from the list to carry into the desert. I was designated the team leader of my band of 8.
I was confident. I got my team down to business quickly. We had some obviously very smart and confident guys who worked in the field for the county. So we actively brainstormed the priority of each item: the pistol and ammo, yes, the flashlight and batteries, of course, etc… With what seemed great efficiency, we arrived at our selection. Nailed it. And still smiling.
Then I noticed our quietest member looking at me. I thought, “I need to be polite and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate.” So I asked her whether she had any input before we ended the exercise.
She took a deep breath and began very calmly. “Well, during my career training survival in the military, we learned it’s important to consider…’ She proceeded to replace every item on our list, explaining our mistakes with practiced concision.
This woman was a US Army Rangers instructor whose job was to train survival techniques to new recruits. She knew more about our scenario than anyone else on the team. And I did not know she was there.
Find your Army Ranger
I allowed my biases to get us killed in this thankfully fictional scenario. By operating from assumptions instead of data, I lead us ALL down a path towards failure. I interpreted silence as inability or inexperience. And — I admit it — I assumed based on my bias at the time about women that of course she didn’t have the experience of surviving in a desert.
I was — still am — embarrassed by the whole thing.
This event deeply shaped how I approach teams today. Now I remember to find my Army Ranger.
What do you not know?
These are among the most powerful questions you will ask as a team leader:
What do you not know?
Who are you not listening to?
What assumptions are you making without data?
These question might be uncomfortable. The discomfort is worth it.
For deeper reading on biases and blindspots, check out the book Blindspot (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013) or the HBR article Decisions without Blinders.
Banaji, M.R. & Greenwald, A.G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York, NY: Delacorte Pres.
Bazerman, M.H. & Chu, D. (2006). Decisions without blinders. Harvard Business Review, 84, 1. Retrieved from http://leadership.rc-hr.com/Portals/2/Decisions%20Blinders.pdf