How branding 101 can make leaders more mindful of diversity

A little branding can go a long way in the corporate suite. Bar code on head from www.shutterstock.com

A few years ago, I overheard two of my MBA students talking after class about their “personal brands.”

At the time, I was amused. But then I kept hearing more about this notion of “my brand.” I noticed it was the subject of articles in Forbes and Harvard Business Review. Suddenly, I saw book upon book devoted to the topic. The conversation centered around bolstering your personal brand by tweeting the right things, highlighting certain attributes in your LinkedIn profile and ingratiating yourself with other powerful personal brands.

Frankly, I bristle at the phrase “personal brand.” We are not products, we are people. The way we present ourselves should be authentic, not part of a sales pitch or advertising campaign. But then I got to thinking: is there a way to apply branding’s best practices to develop greater leadership?

By that, I don’t mean some fabricated Kardashian-type “personal brand” but rather a better understanding of how the decisions we make as leaders are affected by labels and their associations. And how that understanding can in turn make leaders more mindful of diversity – to build inclusive environments and maximize performance.

Heuristics and biases

On one hand, labels and their associations allow us to make more efficient decisions in the blink of an eye, serving as heuristics (or rules of thumb) in the face of limited information and overwhelming options (think: the toothpaste aisle at the supermarket). However, these cognitive shortcuts and associations are also subject to biases, of which even the most “rational” leaders must beware. These biases can affect everything from how leaders evaluate their colleagues to the ideas behind which they throw their support.

At its core, branding is the management of associations to affect decision-making and behavior. Understanding branding principles can enable leaders to be more mindful of their impact on others and to recognize the biases that lead to suboptimal judgments and decisions.

We can marry lessons from behavioral decision-making and leadership to add some science to the “personal branding” discussion and create more inclusive environments. It can help us to understand, for example, why people will pay more for a high-status name (like an educational training program), while at the same time their own performance suffers on related tasks when they feel intimidated. Think about what that might mean for people who are high achievers and come from lower-status backgrounds, like first-generation college students.

So, how can leaders be more effective in creating more inclusive environments? Start by being mindful: recognize the biases that affect us all, and question your own heuristics. This can only be achieved with a sincere effort, as we are prone to “confirmation bias” that makes us focus on evidence that supports our ongoing assumptions.

Authenticity and Mindfulness

Mindful leadership only works if your authentic self is at the core of your message. Imagine if Walmart decided to become a luxury company – how convincing would that be? One problem with the “personal branding” discussion is that it implies superficial “re-branding,” as opposed to deeper introspection and authenticity.

By the same token, great leaders must respect the value of others’ authentic selves. Personal branding may sound “slick,” like a way to mold everyone into a Stepford-like image of perfection. The reality, of course, is that we should not aim to melt individuals down into one homogenized prototype. Valuing your colleagues’ authentic selves can have real implications for bridging the “confidence gap” and maximizing performance.

Self-enhancement bias

But research tells us that this is harder than it might seem. Most people are prone to self-enhancement bias and fancy themselves open-minded. Despite our best intentions, the correlation between the way we think that we are influencing those around us and our actual social impressions is alarmingly low.

This discrepancy has big implications for leaders, especially as the workforce becomes increasingly diverse. Leaders who think they’re inclusive instead might come across as anything but. This is important because research shows that we have at least three degrees of influence on other people’s moods and emotions. It is essential that we become more mindful of the implications of our actions for our colleagues, their families and communities at large.

We like to think that we work within meritocracies, but each of us is subject to bias. Trouble is, if you’re not being mindful in your practice of inclusivity, your most important resource – your talent – is not living up to its potential. My research shows that performance is harmed when people perceive high organizational standards but simultaneously experience “identity threat” because they do not identify personally with the organization.

This means that leaders must help their colleagues understand that they are qualified to be there – and provide them with the tools they need to succeed. Confidence is important for competence.

Mindful leadership and Diversity

Diversity is a tough topic – especially in the workplace. “Diversity” initiatives appear to suffer from a branding problem, despite the increasing diversity of the work force. Research that I’m currently conducting with my colleagues at MIT suggests that the framing of diversity initiatives plays a significant role in people’s evaluations of diversity’s importance.

Some managers may punt on the issue or rely on quotas for women or minority groups in an organization. But that’s a short-term fix, as higher attrition rates for minorities in top organizations suggest.

When we think about a meritocracy, it’s shortsighted to not address the biased judgments. We need to think about what we do to get people to perform at their highest level, including a culture of inclusivity.

Mindful leadership is key. The first step is to recognize that each of us is susceptible to bias, despite our best efforts to be “rational.” Making these non-conscious biases conscious is the best way to begin combating them. Then, we must sincerely listen to the perspectives of others. Being an ally starts with an ability to respect others’ perspectives.

People are not brands. But, like the brands we see every day, our mental associations for different social groups affect our decisions. Being mindful of biases can help leaders better align the impact that we hope to make with our true impact on the world.