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Talking leadership: thoughts on 'advantage blindness'

Ahead of our annual leadership summit on compassionate and inclusive leadership, we explore why it’s important for those in management and leadership roles to be aware of potential blind spots.

What is ‘advantage blindness’?

Advantage blindness is a term I first used in an article in Harvard Business Review  to refer to what psychologists call ‘blind spots’ in self-awareness, aspects of ourselves that are outside of our conscious awareness that others can see. Advantage blindness refers to blind spots pertaining to social and economic advantages. For example, as a man, I’m likely to earn more over the course of my career than a similarly qualified woman. Yet, I may be unaware of this inequality and its impact on my female colleagues. I do not see my experience as a life of special treatment, so can remain oblivious to the fact that others often face obstacles that I don’t.

Tell us how you became interested in this area

In my work with conflict resolution I became interested in how different perceptions of power are important to understanding many conflicts. The social structures within a culture create power differences that are often based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, appearance, social class and so on. This confers advantages to some people who may not recognise themselves as privileged. For example, in meetings, male voices often take up more speaking time and are more likely to be heard by the other men than female voices. This can happen even when men are in a minority in the group yet, until it’s pointed out, men tend not notice the issue. The reasons for this are complex and well documented.

In trying to understand why these advantages are difficult to notice and acknowledge, I considered my own. I had to look beyond my personal experience of life and see myself within a larger social context, through the eyes of others. It wasn’t hard to get this information – all I had to do was ask. A Muslim friend pointed out that our work calendar is designed with Sundays and other Christian holidays as non-work days; a black friend asked if I noticed that police and security people do not look upon me with suspicion; my daughter asked me if I’d ever moved seats or carriages on public transport because of unwanted sexual attention (I hadn’t, and was shocked to learn how frequently this happened to her and other women).

Why is advantage blindness important and how does it relate to compassionate and inclusive leadership?

The more advantaged we are, the less likely we are to understand the life experiences of people who are different. This is usually from a lack of awareness, rather than a lack of caring or compassion. Every leader could ask themselves (and others), ‘what’s it like to be on the receiving end of me?’. Doing this usually reveals a mismatch between our intentions and our impact on others and how they see us. We may intend to be compassionate and inclusive, but that’s not the same as people feeling they are seen and understood by us. Overcoming our advantage blindness is important to help us understand others.

What can be done to address advantage blindness?

For people in leadership roles, it’s important to recognise how the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of advantage operate in their organisations. Most leaders have the confidence to speak up and the nous to know how to navigate and influence organisational power structures. These are not innate qualities, they’re learned. It’s important to recognise that not everyone has the confidence to speak up or has learned how to navigate power structures skilfully. Leaders need to be better at ‘listening up’, even when it is uncomfortable. We need to recognise that the meaning of our behaviour is in its impact, not in our intention, and then change our behaviour to make it psychologically safer for others. For example, one trust recently initiated a reverse mentoring programme. The CEO will be the first to be mentored by someone more junior, from a different background to learn about their experiences.

Why is it especially relevant to leadership in health and care now?

Inequalities in health care are a major challenge. Even in a city as diverse as London, for example, you will find extremes in advantage and disadvantage, with real disparities in life and health outcomes. In the NHS, we often see less diversity in the higher paid clinical, professional and senior management roles than in the workforce as a whole. Advantage blindness from people in these positions can deter staff from speaking up, raising concerns and offering innovative ideas. This can affect patient safety, quality, and staff engagement and well-being.

What can people expect at the summit?

The workshop will include an overview of data from recent research, followed by reflection upon what advantage and advantage blindness means for you and your organisation. The workshop will be experiential and interactive in style. Advantage and disadvantage based on sex, race, religion and so on. can be an uncomfortable topic of conversation. This session will attempt to make it easier for people to acknowledge their own advantages and enable them to raise and discuss the issues surrounding advantage with colleagues back at work.