Breaking Down Bias: How to Create a Culture of Inclusive Leadership

In this episode of the Inclusive Growth Podcast, I spoke with Andy Nisevic from One Degree Training and Coaching about implicit bias. We talked about the role it plays in decision-making and its impact on inclusive leadership.

For today’s conversation, I was joined by Andy Nisevic from One Degree Training and Coaching. Andy has had an interesting career before specialising in leadership development and I was interested to learn from him, amongst other things, how the topic of implicit bias has come up in his career and how he now talks about the subject with his own clients.

Before we dived into the questions, I asked Andy to introduce himself a bit more and tell me a bit about his background and what he does now.

‘My name’s Andy Nisevic and I’m the founder and director of a company called One Degree Training and Coaching. We specialise in leadership development to encourage and create a culture of leadership. So rather than having a mixed bag of skills, that leadership becomes something that’s grown from the bottom up and it becomes the everyday lived experience. Prior to, starting the company back in October last year, I was in the Air Force for 23 years. I joined up at the young age of 19, young, naive, ambitious, not really knowing, what the world was all about. And I learned some great lessons. I learned some harsh lessons as everyone, in any walk of life does and it was a fantastic career. For the last few years, I was teaching the RAF leadership and management courses, and it was hands down the best job I’ve ever had. Ironically, loving my job so much is what caused me to want to leave because I found my place in the world, which is delivering this kind of training to people, which I love.’

It’s brilliant how Andy’s RAF interesting career at the RAF is now informing his current work around leadership development. The main topic of today’s conversation is around implicit bias so we started with the basics. I asked Andy, ‘What is bias and why do we have them?’

‘I’ll just caveat that I’m not an academic, so I’m not going to be able to give you an academic answer or definition of what bias is. But in very, very simple terms, a bias is a perception of the world. That can be a negative perception or a positive perception and they are just because of the experiences that we’ve got. We perceive the world based on those experiences and we will skew reality dependent on how we then interpret the current situation.’

I like the way Andy explains that. One of my diversity and inclusion heroes is Verna Myers, who is now the Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Netflix. She lives over in America. She’s a lawyer by background, and she’s done a great TED talk about biases. She says that biases are the stories that we make up about people before we get to know them. I just think that’s such a great way of putting it because it’s an academic topic that has been studied extensively, particularly for the last decade, so there are those academic definitions out there, but I just like the simplicity and the accessibility of how Verna puts it. For my next question, I asked Andy how biases occur.

‘Well, very simply based on our backgrounds. Between the ages of two and seven, we are very much subjected to the ideas, the opinions, the beliefs of other people. And quite often, like for example, I’m in my forties, people of our generation, we’re still, in some ways, still suffering really because of the biased beliefs that our parents, our grandparents, subjected us to and made us believe were true as we were growing up. And obviously, as we grow up, we develop our own intelligence, our own perception of the world. However, because those external beliefs have been pushed into us from such a young age. They become part of our core beliefs, and it’s that deeper-level stuff that really affects our bias because it exists within the subconscious. So, we don’t have any control over it. But then there are more conscious ways of creating biases.

For example, if you were, let’s say, an academic student and you were picked on by the sportier types, I think that’s a very biased way of stereotyping bullying in school places. I find out that was your lived experience. Then as you grow up, because you were treated badly by people of a certain type, of a certain demographic i.e., sporty, athletic people, you might have a negative feeling towards athletic people as an adult. As you interact with those around you and you meet new people, you see somebody coming up who’s who looks like they work out. It looks like they’re quite sporty and you might straight away have those defences. There are many, many other examples.

Another example is, if you, belong to a certain race and you were bullied by a certain other race, you would potentially have defensive reactions to those people. If there was a certain demographic of society as you were growing up that, let’s say my personal circumstances when I was growing up, there was one particular group of people who you actively avoided in the estates where I grew up, if you saw them, because 90% of the street crime in the estate was, carried out by one certain group of people. So, then that becomes a defensive reaction that we take forward. So that subconsciously, if we see somebody who looks like that person our subconscious puts those defensive barriers up straight away.’

What Andy says there illustrates the way Verna Myers describes bias as being the stories that we make up about people before we get to know them. Andy was keen to put another perspective.

‘The exact opposite is true as well when it comes to biases because the reason that we have biases is to protect us but they can also help us create great relationships with people. So, if there’s a certain type of person whom you got on with brilliantly when you’re at school, then you’re going to have positive biases towards those kinds of people. If there’s a certain type of person that was a busy, positive influence on you as you were growing up, then again, somebody who looks like that or carries themselves in a similar sort of way, then you’re going to naturally gravitate towards them. There are positive aspects to bias as well. And I think that’s what people often forget is that having a bias is not the same as discrimination.’

Writer Malcolm Gladwell also says that biases can help us in some situations and they can hinder us in others and I think that’s a really interesting point. As a leader, I suppose it’s important to understand when biases are a hindrance. So, if you are in a position of responsibility where you are deciding who gets a promotion, if you are promoting somebody in your own image, if your natural tendency is to associate with a certain type of person and they’re more likely to get promoted, then that actually might work against other people.

Andy agreed. ‘From my experience, developing leaders, it’s quite common that you’ll see people who are promoted, who are in the same sort of mould as their bosses. It’s not because necessarily they’re consciously favouring those people, but their managers have got a positive bias and it’s that, it’s not conscious thoughts. They’re not necessarily applying conscious activities to it. It’s all in the subconscious where you’re seeing the reasons to promote somebody rather than the reasons not to.’

I see this a lot with my clients where they’re concerned about a lack of diversity at the senior levels of an organisation, and they’re really concerned about groupthink and the fact that they’ve got a leadership team that are from similar backgrounds and thinking along similar lines. They’re missing out on creativity, innovation, more well-rounded decision making and that kind of thing.

Andy acknowledged that is one of the dangers of positive bias. ‘The obvious one is other people’s perception that it is discrimination. So, either positive discrimination for the people who are getting promoted or negative discrimination against the people who aren’t getting promoted. But often it’s just not that simple. It’s far more complicated. There’s deep psychology behind how bias works and how it affects the way that we think and what we see in certain people and what we don’t see in other people. Groupthink is an incredibly dangerous thing within the business sense because if everybody is making the same decisions, and everybody is acting in the same way, then there’s no ability to react when something different happens. Different perspectives bring those new ideas that need to come in within the modern changing world.’

In the context of his everyday work with leaders, I asked Andy if he could say a bit more about some of the other risks of ignoring our implicit biases.

‘The number one risk is how other people perceive it. There have been a number of diversity and inclusion cases that I’ve been indirectly aware of over the years and a very common feature is one person thinks they’re being discriminated against. The other person categorically, quite aggressively denies it, taking offence that they could be deemed as being discriminatory, whereas actually, both people are right. And this is what I mean it is not simple. There’s deep-level psychology that goes on here. Both people are right because the person who is perceived that they are being discriminated against from their perspective, they are. But from the person who is defending themselves in this situation, they haven’t acted with discrimination. They’ve just acted according to their own biases. And this is all going on in the subconscious, so they’re not aware of the impacts that they’re having on other people.’

I like what Andy said about it being our perspectives through experience in relation to unconscious bias. One of my favourite sayings when I talk about unconscious biases, is that ‘We falsely think that we accurately see the world and then we make decisions based on what we falsely think is true.’ It’s a bit of a mind-bender, but I’ve done enough training now and I’ve said it so many times that it is just ingrained in me.

Andy replied, ‘You’ve just reminded me of a book that I’m reading at the moment. I can’t remember the name of the author, but the title of the book is You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are”.
It refers to a bit of research that says that every single human being has a physical blind spot, more or less front and centre of your vision. But we don’t perceive it because based on our experiences and our knowledge, our brain does what it’s designed to do and it just fills in the blank. We’re not aware of this, but the easiest way that I found to contextualise it is those times when you walk down the streets and all of a sudden somebody appears out of nowhere and they say, I’ve been trying to wave at you and get your attention for the last couple of minutes, and you just haven’t been aware. But that’s because they’ve been within that blind spot and your brain wasn’t expecting them to be there. This happens within our vision but it also happens within our understanding as well. There is only so much data that our brains can process.’

This reminded me that there’s a great video on YouTube I’ve used in training. On the screen are people wearing white T-shirts and black T-shirts and the voiceover says you’re going to watch a thirty-second clip. Try and count as many people wearing white T-shirts as possible. So, you’re sat there watching this video and you’re trying to count the number of people wearing a white T-shirt and then it pauses and then the voiceover artist asks, “But did you see the dancing bear?” And you’re like, “What dancing bear?” The voiceover says to watch it again and then there’s this bear that does a moonwalk across the screen. I think that’s what you were talking about. You’re so focused on trying to count the number of people wearing a white T-shirt that you miss the moonwalking bear.

‘Exactly, right there, right in front and centre of the vision. There is a similar one where the study said to count the number of passes between players on a football pitch and someone in a gorilla’s suit walks across the screen. Fewer than half of the people taking part in the study saw this gorilla that was right in front of them.’

Being aware of your blind spots and biases is one area of being an inclusive leader. It is something that Deloitte talk about in their six signature traits of inclusive leadership. But I do know that the other thing that Andy talks about is the danger of ego. I asked him to tell me more about the importance of humility in being an inclusive leader.

‘Ego is something that everybody has. In the same way that everybody has biases, everybody has an ego. Again, I’m not an academic, so I won’t go into the full science of it, maybe because I don’t know it fully. But there are three aspects of the psyche. There’s the ego, the super-ego and the id. The id is the calm and sensible and kind of boring one that keeps you safe and everything. The super-ego is that absolutely catastrophic mess of a person who just wants to go and throw themselves out of a plane. And who cares about a parachute? We don’t need that. And the ego that is still risk averse, but a little less, but it is kind of your sense of superiority and that sense of righteousness that we have. When we operate purely with an ego, what we’re doing is concentrating on ourselves, what our needs are, whether we’re right or wrong, and what our opinions are.

There is nothing better to disconnect us from the people that we’re responsible for or the people that we’re working with than operating with an ego. We need every aspect of that psyche. If we didn’t have that super-ego, we would never take any risks at all. We would never have any fun because the id would just keep us safe and boring and we’d be in a locked room. If we didn’t have the ego, we’d never stretch ourselves. We’d never really push our point of view and allow ourselves to be heard. If we didn’t have that id, then we would just be jumping out of a plane with no parachute. We need all aspects of the psyche, including the ego.

But if we only operate with an ego, then we’re just disconnecting because we don’t allow ourselves to hear other people’s ideas, opinions, and thoughts. It’s all just about us. That’s why we need to balance out everything. Let our ego go. Quite often, a big mistake that leaders make is they tell people to do something or what they “should” be doing. Whereas, actually, what we need to be doing as leaders is we need to ask questions. Because when we ask questions, we allow other people to be themselves. We can then learn more about that person, learn more about where their strengths are, what they’re capable of or what their potential is. Also, we learn about the areas where they need a little bit of development and where we can then support them.

When we operate from ego, we don’t allow ourselves to ask questions. It’s just constant tell. You “should” be doing this. You “should” be doing that. And as Professor Steve Peters once said in a talk I heard him give, “should” is probably one of the most dangerous words in the English language because it comes from bias, it generates, comes from assumption, but guarantees absolutely nothing.’

I heard that when I was training to be an executive coach. They said to us to keep an eye out for the “should” words. If somebody says, “Oh, I should be doing this”, or, “I should be doing that.” That’s a good word to look out for.

Now, Andy and I have talked about how our implicit biases can positively or negatively impact our decision making and we’ve also talked about the role of ego as a leader. I asked him, ‘If the person reading this wants to be a more inclusive leader, be more aware of their biases or their blind spots, or they want to be more curious and they want to have more humility. What’s your advice to them?’

‘The biggest lesson that I learned, unfortunately far too late in life, was that as individuals we are probably the last person to know what’s best for us. We like to think that we’re self-aware but actually, we’re not. We very often don’t allow ourselves to be truly honest with ourselves and that’s another part of the psyche that prevents us from doing that. I mentioned Steve Peters earlier. In his book “The Chimp Paradox” he writes about the chimp brain which doesn’t like to be wrong. So, it’ll create all sorts of havoc and excuses and chaos in order to stop you from really delving deep into yourself. So, whatever you can do to raise your self-awareness is the number one piece of advice that I would encourage. Not just leaders, not just people with leadership responsibility, but everyone to do. Because there are loads and loads of assessments that you can do, some paid for, some free.

Obviously, you take the free ones with a pinch of salt because they’re quite often lead magnets to try and get you to buy something. But what the free ones do is give you an awareness of where you might have some biases. It’s not that you do, but where you might. When we can be aware of where our biases are, we can challenge ourselves and we can slow our decision-making down. So, let’s say, that we use the example promoting somebody. Again, we can ask ourselves questions such as, what evidence have I got that tells me that person A is a better candidate than person B rather than just having that feeling because if it’s a feeling, there’s a good chance that it’s coming from bias.

This reminded me of a famous book about unconscious bias called “Thinking Fast. Thinking Slow.” by Daniel Kahneman in which he writes about system one and system two thinking. And if you are going with your kind of intuition and your gut reaction, you’re probably going with your system one thinking, which is rife with bias.

Andy agreed. ‘There are times when decision making needs to be rapid, and quite often your gut feeling will steer you right about 80% of the time it’s the operator principle, isn’t it? Generally, about 80% of the time that gut feeling will steer you in the right direction. But where there is time to really think about something, and when you are promoting somebody, you’re not going to promote somebody on a whim, are you? There’s going to be lots of process to it. That’s where you can sit and analyse and think, “Right. What evidence have I got? Where have they shown that they’re an expert in their current field? What leadership qualities have they shown? Where have they shown that they’re able to listen to people, to hear other people and create an environment that everybody feels able to own their own voice, but also to grow and develop within the team.” After all, there’s a lot more to leadership than just being good at your job.’

I like what Andy says about intuition being true 80% of the time. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, he tells a story about a firefighter in New York going into a burning building and the firefighter thought that the fire wasn’t behaving in the way that it should behave. Everybody thought that the fire was coming from the kitchen, but his instinct was to tell his crew to get out of the building as soon as possible. And just as he did, the floor collapsed because the fire was actually coming from the basement. He was using, in the words of Daniel Kahneman, his system one thinking. You don’t want to overthink those kinds of situations. You probably do want to go with your hunches.

Andy added, ‘I’m sure you can use your imagination that there have been some instances in my career where I can sit down and have a committee to make a decision about something in that directive authoritarian style of leadership, a much less diplomatic way. But sometimes that’s needed when time is of the essence and you don’t just have to be in a military or a firefighter or a policeman to have that need. But where the opportunity arises, ask yourself the questions. That will help slow yourself down and significantly reduce your risk of acting in a way that other people would perceive as discriminatory.’

Slowing down is a really good tip because often we are prone to biases when we are working under pressure to tight deadlines and we’re under high cognitive load or stress. In other words, it’s easier said than done in some situations, but the ability to just slow down your thinking does help a lot.

My next question was the one I ask everybody when they come on the podcast, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘It’s a great question. And you know what, since you emailed me a couple of weeks ago to tell me that this is a question, I’ve tried to think of a smart answer to give that’s going to make your audience go, “Yeah, good point. Well done.” You know what, I just love the give it a little kiss principle, or “Keep It Simple Sherlock”. So, inclusive growth to me means everybody knows something you don’t. That’s one of the core values of my business. Everybody knows something that I don’t. So, inclusivity just means the ability to hear perspectives, ideas, thoughts, and opinions from anywhere.

There’s a great example I can give you to show great ideas can come from absolutely anywhere. Several years ago, I was a Combat Ready trainer in the Air Force. We were on exercise and the mission went completely wrong. Anything that you could think of goes wrong. All of the positions were filled by trainees. They were qualified people, but trainees on the combat-ready, side of things. All of the instructors, people similar to me, with twentyish years of experience doing the job and we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do, trying to draw out ideas of how to solve them. Trying to draw blood from a stone.

There was this young lad who had been in the military for twelve to eighteen months, something like that. A little bit cocky, one of those good fun people. But yeah, just one of those idiot-type characters. I can’t remember what he said, but he just piped up with an idea and just said, why don’t we just do this? And it was something about the way that we share information around the op room and all of us instructors, and I’d say easily twenty years average experience for each person, our chins just hit the floor thinking in all the years we’ve been doing this, why have we never thought of this?

It was so easy that with one tiny little change, the next mission, everything went perfectly. And this was for somebody whom nobody had a massive deal and respect for at the time. Everyone liked him, but he was one of these people who if there was ever any trouble, was not necessarily a troublemaker, but one of the people involved. Nobody had a massive amount of respect for him as an operator, but his one idea just completely solved all the problems that we’d had.’

It’s brilliant to hear that as leaders, Andy and his colleagues were open to hearing that idea, which I think is a testament to inclusive leadership.

To get in touch with Andy Nisevic do go to his LinkedIn page and connect with him there. Andy said he would be happy to answer any questions, discuss anything we’ve talked about or be of further help.

Hopefully, you’ve taken away some interesting information about creating inclusive cultures within your own organisation. If you do want any assistance with this, please reach out to the team on our website at

To go even further in your diversity and inclusion journey, you can also log on to a free webinar and accelerate your company’s diversity and inclusion strategy in 40 minutes.

Breaking Down Bias: How to Create a Culture of Inclusive Leadership - Mildon