Why can we spot acts of unfairness by our boss and others but deny it in our own behaviour?


How a 1950's management tool can shed light on improving transparency, openness and inclusion in today’s workplaces

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a claim: Talking about the shortcomings of our boss and our colleagues is not a new phenomenon!

Our bosses come in for a high degree of scrutiny. After all, that set the tone and we take our own workplace behaviour cues from their leadership shadow (i.e. what they say, do, prioritise and measure). We are quick to rack up a list of failings yet how often do we stop and consider how others view us? We might think we know quite a lot about ourselves and how others perceive us but, in reality there may well be a large chunk of our behaviour at work (and at home!) that we are simply not aware of. And this extends to biases and prejudices we carry and unwittingly direct towards those we work alongside.

There is no malice intended in our jibes and jokes – it’s all just good fun! These days we have many self-awareness tools at our disposal to ensure we gain a rounded picture of our interpersonal style. We may have undertaken 360 degree feedback or a personality/behavioural preference assessment - I’m a fan of the TriMetrics Science of Self: behaviour, motivator and EQ tools in my coaching practice. However, human shortcomings like biases are often buried so deep they remain outside our conscious awareness. Self Assessment tools may not fully dig to this deeper layer. If they did we may be more ready to accept our own biases and prejudices rather than being merely adept at detecting or inferring a wide variety of biases in others as Pronin et al found in their research.

To aid in explaining this ‘blindness’ to our biases I turn to a trusted source: the Johari Window Model by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham (1955) see below. I first encountered this model in the late 1980’s and it was one of those WOW moments – I was completing a cross discipline elective unit in my Arts degree and this model had such an impact it literally changed the course of my undergraduate degree and ultimately my career. The model comprises four quadrants relating to our interpersonal relationships and self awareness. It’s power is in defining the critical areas of our ‘blind’ and ‘unknown’ areas, where our biases can lurk well outside the range of our consciousness.

More about the Johari Window:

The Johari Window model has typically been used in team building to improve self-awareness, trust and communication within a team. It enables facilitation of structured communication and rich dialogue by exploring information about each team member from four perspectives:

Open Area: known to self and to others (“public self”)

Blind Area: known by others, but not to self (“unaware self”)

Hidden Area: known to self, but not by others (“private self”)

Unknown Area: not known by self or others (“potential self”)

In my view, the model has an equally relevant and broader application today. Progressive workplaces strive to achieve excellence and innovation through greater inclusion and diversity and by challenging assumptions and unpacking biases which have limited opportunity for those who don’t typically ‘fit the traditional employee mould’. It creates the platform to better understand perception of self and others the potential dissonance between how we see ourselves and how others may see us. We can then start to understand how perception is shaped by our own unique identity forming a ‘lens’ by which we view and make sense of the world. How do I expand my ‘Open’ and shrink my ‘Blind/Unknown’ areas?

The Johari Window quadrants are represented as four equal-sized boxes however they are anything but static. Like shifting walls in a house, the rooms will expand and contract in size, in proportion to the flow of information within the group. For example, when a new team comes together for the first time, the “open area” and “blind area” will both be smaller in size than the “hidden area” and “unknown area”, since team members know very little about each other at this early stage. As team members learn more about each other’s unique identity (background, education, skills, beliefs, values, behavioural tendencies, etc.) through self-disclosure, sharing, observation, soliciting feedback and self-discovery, the “open area” will gradually expand and take up the most room in the diagram. This sharing builds an environment of trust where upward feedback is more culturally acceptable. The challenge for leaders The explicit goal of the model is to move a team (and individuals) toward the “open area”.

When people work together in an environment where they have a clear understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own, it is generally more conducive to trust and productivity in the workplace. Leaders play a significant role in shaping the team’s culture and openness through their own actions and leader shadow. We watch our leaders very closely and are look for signs of consistency between what is said and what is done. What you can do A significant part of my practice is assisting leaders and teams to understand the very human basis of our unconscious biases, unpacking and bringing to the surface deeply embedded stereotypes that we don’t know we have. We find that naming key forms of both cognitive and personal biases makes it easier to openly discuss assumptions and expose blind spots whilst shrinking the collective ‘unknown’ areas. In doing so, decisions can be more transparent, based on solid evidence and ultimately creating a more inclusive workplace where people can thrive and do their best work.

Spotting our own biases is much easier once you know what to look for and saves others doing it for us! And if you don’t think you have biases, then take the free on-line test here. This may assist you open up your ‘blind’ or ‘unknown’ areas.

Contact Wendy Lundgaard for a no obligation discussion on how we might help your organisation increase the ‘open’ area by building a more inclusive and diverse culture. Parts of this article were first published by DTS International’s in a blog post 40 Must-Know HR, OD, L&D Models.