Bias with Leo Wong from MacEwan University

As a leader, have you taken the time to become fully aware of your own attitudes?

For example, do you stereotype the people you work with, as in:

  • All accountants are boring
  • All sales people dress well
  • All bankers are evil etc.

If this is happening and you don’t even realize it, then it may be time to learn about your own ‘unconscious bias’.

And in episode #130 on the Meeting Leadership Podcast we are fortunate to have expert Leo Wong to help us all learn about our own unconscious bias. Not only is Leo an Assistant Professor at MacEwan University, but he also helps to run the Social Innovation Institute. So Leo has to help a wide variety of stakeholders come together to solve complex problems. One of the key ingredients that he uses to make these efforts successful is to help everyone understand that they may have some deep-seeded attitudes that could be helpful or harmful.

So get out your pens and a thick pad of paper, because you’ll want to take a lot of notes as you listen to this informative episode!

Leo Wong

Leo Wong - Meeting Leadership Podcast - Effective Meetings

Leo is the founding director of the Social Innovation Institute and an assistant professor in the School of Business. He graduated with a PhD in Marketing from the University of Alberta. He teaches and researches new business concepts that are aligned with socially responsible thinking and ethical decision-making, working with a generation of students who will shape our sustainable world. He has done applied research with social enterprises, taught undergraduate and graduate business courses related to sustainability and designed courses focused on corporate social responsibility.

You can get in touch with Leo at

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As a leader, is it possible that you might have some deep seated attitudes that you’re not even aware of? Do you want to learn how to do something about it? Then listen to today’s episode on the Meeting Leadership Podcast, because today we’re going to be talking all about unconscious bias, and we’re fortunate enough to have expert Leo Wong here to do it with us.

Are you a professional who wants to become a more effective leader? Then get ready for practical tips from the coach with the experience and inspiration to help you succeed in any leadership situation. You’re listening to the Meeting Leadership Podcast with Gordon Sheppard.

Gordon Sheppard: Welcome to another episode of the Meeting Leadership Podcast. My name is Gordon Sheppard. I want to say thank you so much for being here. Thank you for being the type of person who wants to be a leader that gets one more leadership skill, gets one more way, one more strategy to help you learn how to run highly effective meetings, and you’re actually trusting the Meeting Leadership Podcast as the place to get that done. I also want to say thank you so much for continuing to listen as we make this format change. Now, as so many of you already know, and especially for the subscribers to the show, we actually have been going with a daily format all the way up to episode 129, and now starting an episode 130 we’re going to go to a longer format interview and we’re going to deliver this one interview per week.

The second episode that we’re going to deliver throughout the week is going to be a short format interview, the type of thing that you’re already used to in terms of getting a really practical set of tips that you can take in to make your next meeting significantly better. So we’re moving away from daily short format and we’re going to two episodes a week. One long format with a great interview and then the other, a short format episode that you can put into action right away. With that in mind, let me tell you about today’s long format episode with expert Leo Wong. Now, Leo is an Assistant Professor at MacEwan University and he’s also the Founding Director of the Social Innovation Institute.

Now, he does things there to bring all kinds of stakeholders together to solve highly complex problems. One of the key things that he pulls right out of his research and actually helps people to be aware of when they’re coming together in these teams that need to form, he really wants them to be aware of their unconscious bias. This is something that we all have, but not everybody is actually aware of it. In today’s episode he’s going to talk about how important it is to have self-awareness, how important it is to know that unconscious bias can actually be influencing your projects in a positive way or a very negative way. With that introduction, I’m not going to hold you back any longer. Here’s the great interview with Leo Wong. Leo, welcome to the show.

Leo Wong: Hi Gordon. Thanks for having me.

Gordon Sheppard: It’s really good to have you here, especially for so much of the good work that you’re doing in the social impact space. I know as a volunteer in my community, when I run into folks like you who are tackling this sort of macro and connector approach, I get really, really excited. But to back up for a second, there’s a lot of people maybe that haven’t met you. Do me a favor and tell me how you would introduce yourself at a party.

Leo Wong: I am a faculty member at MacEwan university here in Edmonton and I do some work in the social innovation space as the Director of a thing that we call the Social Innovation Institute. it is partnered with a space on campus called Roundhouse.

Gordon Sheppard: That opportunity that you’ve essentially been a big part of the formation of, what does it do?

Leo Wong: We try and bridge the university with community initiatives and community organizations that are looking to take an innovative approach to solving their social challenges that they try and address. So we’re really about being a connector between academia, business community, nonprofit organizations and government to collaborate together.

Gordon Sheppard: What a great thing to do, to go to work every day and actually do. You must really sleep well at night.

Leo Wong: Yes, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a lot of the dreaming up of, “What if we could do this and what if we could do that?” Then trying to set some of those things in motion. It is a great opportunity and it’s a privilege to be able to look at the world through that lens. But I think a lot of people in our community have a similar perspective and we’re really just trying to find ways to work together to kind of have a common approach to doing these things.

Gordon Sheppard: That is a wonderfully modest Canadian answer. I really appreciate it. One of the big underbellies of everything that’s happening in your world, and a lot of what I’m trying to influence and part of bringing you on the show, is any of these initiatives need leadership. I know you’ve got a lot of interest in that area as well. That’s a big part of what we’re here to talk about today. In fact, the title for this episode is going to be called Why Leaders Need To Be Aware Of Unconscious Bias. Now, we were talking a little bit about unconscious bias, I know, in the pre-interview that we did. What is unconscious bias and why do you think it’s so significant to know about?

Leo Wong: Unconscious bias is really that level of decision making, or influences on how you make decisions, that you’re not necessarily aware of. There are socialized things that you grew up with that they’ve just been part of your worldview. You look at the world in a certain way, mostly through experiences you’ve had in the past. That influences the way you make a decision, and because you might not be aware of those influences, then you’re not sure how your decision has really impacted other people as a result of that. My studies and my research was based in consumer behavior, what that lends around kind of social impact. So I studied how people made decisions and I’ve tried to apply that level of insight into the social impact world.

Gordon Sheppard: I really appreciate this because there are so many leaders, again, working in the social impact space. In fact, every leader will learn from this next part, and that is, give me an example of someone who’s, let’s say leading a significant nonprofit scenario and they’re in that leadership role. Maybe they’re like an executive director and they’ve got to make significant decisions. What kind of unconscious bias scenarios are they running into as leaders that could, I guess, negatively impact their decision making?

Leo Wong: Mostly they get into that position because they’ve done really great work from some part of their … they started with a discipline. They might’ve come out of a marketing area or an accounting area, or engineer or computer science, something like that. They have a certain discipline and then they’ve grown into those leadership roles where they start leading a group of people that include the people that come from their discipline, but also others. If you’re the engineer that now becomes the manager and the director of something, you might be overseeing scientists, biologists, and accountants and HR professionals and so forth. Now, you might have a bias towards the discipline that you know that they are kind of part of your ingroup, and the people that are part of the outgroup might not have that same level of familiarity to you.

Therefore you kind of respond to the suggestions that they make in terms of, if you’re in a group meeting, a little bit differently. To the point where you’re not even aware of how you respond to those things. Even using labels on groups of people, on how they … the language that they use, and the language that you use, can start to separate people from each other. So being aware of those unconscious biases that you might have help you disarm the way that you approach groups. To be an effective leader, you need to engage different people at a level where they can collaborate with each other. But if you have these kind of hidden senses in the way you communicate, people start to kind of be weary of the way they’re being led. So being aware of that helps you really remove that layer of bias.

Gordon Sheppard: But aren’t all accountants boring and aren’t all sales guys fun, and isn’t that just the way the world is?

Leo Wong: That’s exactly the kind of stereotyping that happens for [inaudible] purposes and I appreciate that because I will often make fun of accountants because I’m not one. But then you don’t realize that at some levels, that that level of stereotyping has an unintended consequence. So it’s reading your audience really, it’s knowing who you’re working with and knowing how they look at you. That level of dynamic relationship is understated, we don’t really teach that at university. We expect people to work in groups to be very effective in groups, but we don’t actually teach them how to better manage their group communication.

Gordon Sheppard: The heart of my work is to help people have better meetings and this is a very significant thing, this self-awareness piece. The unconscious bias part though is not something I’m expert in. If someone is in a leadership role, what are the steps they can begin to take to actually put this into action, to become aware of unconscious bias?

Leo Wong: There are a lot of unconscious bias trainings that you can go and take. I think that’s a good first step. It’s just to open your mind to understanding what different types of unconscious bias might look like. A lot of them are rooted in kind of the psychology, sociology of decision-making. The more you become aware of those things, then you can start reflecting on whether or not you may have perhaps done that. Step two to this is to take personal assessments. The one that comes to mind is offered through Harvard and it’s an online test called the Implicit Bias Assessment. Basically it asks you to respond to a lot of different stimuli, images and words related to things that could be related to gender, age, ethnicity. The way the test is set up. It gives you some sort of a limited amount of time to respond to it.

Depending on how quickly you respond to certain things and how slowly you respond to others, it starts to develop an assessment on how much prejudice you might have for a certain type of thing. That’s kind of a unnerving, uncomfortable test to go through, if you think about revealing some of your bias. So I would often recommend to people, go through some training, learn about what unconscious bias might look like, and then maybe do this test where again, I would suggest you do that in some privacy. You do at the end of the night or some time when you have some reflection time, and try the test and kind of be open-minded to knowing that everybody, all of us, have some level of unconscious bias that influences the way we look at the world. It’s just a matter of acknowledging that we have that. Then to what degree, to what intensity does that affect our decision-making?

Gordon Sheppard: There’s two parts I want to pick up on in what you’ve said. One part is the uncomfortable part, and I wonder if that’s not a big piece of why people don’t get at the self-awareness, but for leaders that are tired of the people that are following them not doing what they want them to do, this is a major factor. Like if, I don’t know, if you’re telling off-color jokes or if you’re not aware of some prejudice that you had, or like you were saying earlier, if your language is off, this is actually a benefit to get through this uncomfortable self-awareness phase so that you’re going to be in a better position to be a better leader, and the folks are going to follow along at a higher productive level.

Leo Wong: Definitely. That uncomfort is a natural thing and I think a lot of this is just acknowledging our own behaviors. Maybe sometimes as leaders we tend to think of ourselves as perfect or near-perfect individuals. We have grown past some of our early developmental challenges, and the people that we oversee or supervise or work with are still struggling with those things. We are beyond those things. When you have that perspective, then it’s really difficult to acknowledge that you still have things that maybe are limiting your performance. So knowing that everyone … acknowledging that we all have levels of bias, acknowledging that we have some areas of bias that actually influence the way we look at things and make decisions about things, it’s just a humbling exercise to go through.

But it’s a necessary one in my opinion, necessary to get past that point where if you want to lead effectively, you need to lead a diverse group of people. Often it’s going to be different types of people that are in the groups that you lead. So you need to be able to bridge those differences amongst those people well. They all have their own biases too. To lead with bias, it’s a positive thing. It might sound like a negative thing, but if you know what that bias is, and then you can work with your team to also acknowledge their bias, and everyone kind of gathers around understanding where our strengths are and where maybe some of our gaps are.

Gordon Sheppard: So in fact, knowing your bias and knowing the strengths of it can be an asset?

Leo Wong: I think so, because if I had a bias in a certain area and I knew the team that I was leading had different levels of bias, at least we know, we’re aware of what’s on the map and what we’re playing with. If we didn’t know those things, then we’re kind of walking on like an visible landmine where we’re trying to make decisions and we’re unsure why we’re getting stuck on something. Why can’t we agree on a thing or why can’t we collaborate to the degree that we thought we could? You’re just scratching your head, “Oh, that meeting didn’t go well,” or “This project isn’t unfolding the way we thought it should, and why? Why can’t we?” So that helps reduce that level of uncertainty that people have.

In my area around kind of social innovation and social impact, that’s really critical because we’re often dealing with really complex issues that require lots of different stakeholders to get involved. Often those stakeholders come from very different backgrounds. That’s where innovation comes. Innovation occurs where you have people from very different worlds colliding and where those margins, those overlapping areas where people are starting to work together, the new ideas sprout from those intersections. But to be able to navigate through that complexity, you need to understand that everyone has a very different background, and to know that your bias is influencing that. It sounds like it’s a challenge, but it’s really kind of the necessary path to go through to get to the innovative ideas.

Gordon Sheppard: I couldn’t agree more and I think you’ve coined a phrase, “invisible landmine”, which I think is so valuable for any leader listening to this. Funny, I’ve done an MBA at the University of Alberta. In terms of meeting leadership skills, awareness, this kind of thing, I’ve trained doctors and engineers and bureaucrats. What strikes me about these professional trainings, engineering, doctor, business, whatever these things are, is they’re not super set up to help people get through and be aware of those invisible landmines. Maybe with as much emphasis as they could be. They’ve got traditional sort of ways to go at things. So I’m so glad that you are in the position that you’re in, to be influencing the young people. I know another part of our pre-interview was you were talking about your sort of thrill or enthusiasm for our next generation of leaders. When you think about this, what’s so important to you to really encourage young people to become that next generation of leaders?

Leo Wong: It’s just such a fortunate position to be able to influence a little bit of their thinking. When I think about university-aged, they’re in those formative years of what their adult life is going to look like. They’re making decisions on what their future … what they’re going to spend five, ten maybe more years on. Now we know that careers are shifting quite a bit, but young people are choosing whether they’re going to enter that career path, and how they’re going to enter that career path. So being able to influence the way they see the world in a environment where we are encouraging them to challenge the status quo. So even in the classes I teach, I tell them, “Challenge what I’m teaching you. Challenge the textbook. Challenge the things that you’re being taught, to think critically on your own. But understand that these are some principles and trends that are happening in society now that will influence the future and you have an active role to play in that.”

So for me it’s a lot about what does a sustainable world look like? How do we get to a point where an economy, especially locally or regionally, can help all people, not just the wealthiest individuals but all people in our society? So whatever path you take, what can your role be in terms of being a responsible citizen? Whether that becomes a leader within an organization, a for-profit, nonprofit, whatever have you, or as an individual citizen. What can you do that will contribute to society in a positive way? That is just an immense privilege, to be able to have that voice and to have the discussion with young people who are often thinking about that. There are a lot of young people nowadays are trying to balance between finding a career path that offers them stability and some decent income, with an ability to make a difference in the world. I think that combination is just such a vibrant kind of ingredient to have for the future of our society.

Gordon Sheppard: How are you helping these young people to be aware of what the wall they’re going to kind of run into, for say the next five or ten years? When I say that, I mean white-haired old men who are not ready for this attitude to come into their office space. A friend of mine with his daughter in her early 20s and my buddy, I’m 52, he’s 53-ish, and we’re sitting around their supper table one night and she was going off about how she told her boss off. I took my age and stage and I listened through a specific lens for her attitude.

Yet I’m going to guess almost that she had come through someone, a teacher like you, to be in that position where I was listening going, “Wow, that’s going to get you in trouble in your career. That’s not going to work out.” And yet she had good outcomes from that, and these bosses were actually listening because she had something to contribute. So now, your ability to empower these young leaders with this, how do you help them bring this fresher, challenging leadership approach into the workplace and then balance it out so they maybe don’t get squashed too early in the next five or ten years?

Leo Wong: Yeah, there’s a fine balance there between … there’s kind of an image of that young … the millennial that is entitled, that thinks that the world owes them things. To some degree I see that in some of our students, where they don’t know what they don’t know, and they think they know a lot more. That’s where you’re kind of grounding them in a lot of the realities of the working world, is important to engage them early on before they get into that labor market. So that they can back up what they’re saying.

I think that’s the biggest trap that some of our young people fall into, is that they grow up, they get into a work environment where they think more about themselves than they think of others. That’s really not a healthy thing, like they need to respect their colleagues, especially with being junior in that environment. But the ones that I think are really excelling are the ones that can justify their ideas really well, that they can find a rationale to back up why they think a certain way, and they can communicate that in a respectful manner. Those that can go down that path are going to be successful.

There’s a fine balance. It might look like the same person. One person’s very opinionated. They’re going off on why the things should be in a certain way, but they can’t really back it up. Then you’re going to realize that these people are still needing a little bit more support, but I find that a lot of our young people are, especially the ones that are kind of finishing university, they’ve had enough struggles in university. They’ve kind of gone through the grind where they know that it’s not going to be easy to succeed. So they’ve developed that critical thinking and the communication skills to support them in the real world.

Gordon Sheppard: Ironically what I’m hearing is it’s the next generation, but they have their own unconscious bias that they need to learn about as well. Which kind of ropes in the beginning of the things that you wanted to bring to us today to help us learn. This is just really terrific information. I think people are going to learn a lot from it, especially from a leadership perspective. The last question that I’d like to bring forward for folks that come on the show, and I’m just going to hit you with it kind of straight up, and it’s this one, what inspires you?

Leo Wong: It sounds really cheesy, but it’s the people that I work with and that I get to teach. I get so much from meeting them and I hope that I can give them something to think about as well. But every individual that I cross paths with and get to learn a little bit about their story and kind of what makes them tick, I try and take that as an inspiration. So every day, every week we do some really cool stuff at MacEwan. We’re engaging with community, working with people that are also trying to dream big and work, taking small steps to get there. Those are just inspirational moments that I get to have every week.

Gordon Sheppard: Just to put you on the spot for a second, and not without naming full names, but is there like a first name and a story that comes to mind? Again, a colleague, a student that is inspiring you?

Leo Wong: There’s so many. No one particularly comes to mind, but like on Friday, a couple of days ago, we had an event at the Roundhouse. We had about 24 youth from across Edmonton come up with ideas to make Edmonton a better city to work in for young people. They all had their ideas. I remember one of the students, her name was Courtney, she was very vocal about talking about how the post-secondary institutions in Edmonton need to do better in terms of supporting their youth, getting ready for the workplace. She cited examples from U of A and from NAIT and she just talked about how that she wants to be an active leader in helping the institutions change some of their practices.

She did this in front of an audience of about 90 people with some corporate leaders in there, and she was just super-confident about it and you could just see that. The lights were going off in a lot of people in the audience thinking, “Wow, this person has that confidence and that insight to know what part of the system might not be working. And she’s committed to helping make that system better.” I just met her that day. So you just know that she’s come up through a system that’s at least helped her get to this point, to then make that system even better. That’s the kind of environment that’s really thrilling for me.

Gordon Sheppard: Absolutely inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing that story. Thank you so much for making us aware of unconscious bias as leaders. Again, we’ve learned a ton. If people need to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do that?

Leo Wong: They can find me online. I use my LinkedIn profile as probably my best means to keep connected with people. Then just look for Leo at MacEwan university and you’ll find me.

Gordon Sheppard: That sounds really great. Leo, thank you so much again for coming on the show.

Leo Wong: Thanks for your podcast and doing the work that you’re working on too.

Gordon Sheppard: Now, I know you will absolutely agree that there were so many wonderful takeaways from that interview, and one of my favorite concepts in there is ‘invisible landmines’. Now think about it, as a leader, if you could actually steer around those instead of stepping on them. You know that moment you’re in a meeting and you’re leading it, and you say something that’s sort of off-color and you didn’t mean to, but if you knew how to actually avoid that, wouldn’t that be just great? So the investment in learning about unconscious bias, this is really really a big one, and I hope that everyone gets away from this episode, goes charging ahead and does just that. If you and your team want to become even more aware of some of your blind spots, then check out episode 39 on the Meeting Leadership Podcast. It’s called Why Intercultural Competence Is Critical For All Leaders and that’s with expert Dan Garcia.

There, he gets into some really substantial thoughts about the work that he does in helping people to learn about their intercultural competence. Really worthwhile, and you can get that episode by going to meetingleadershipinc dot com forward slash 39. And then in episode 98 you can actually learn how to ask someone to be your mentor. We actually do a simulation about how to do that very thing. It’s one of those things that if you’re trying to gain self-awareness, you want to get after your unconscious bias, having a mentor can be invaluable. So check out episode 98 by going to meetingleadershipinc dot com forward slash 98. I also want to let you know that this episode of the Meeting Leadership Podcast is brought to you by the Meeting leadership Academy. Now, there we have some really terrific options for you and your team to get some live training.

There’s a great half-day workshop around effective meeting development. There’s some before, during and after processes with that type of training as well. I think you’ll get a lot out of that. If you’re looking for some online training options, they are there as well and you can check that out by going to meetingleadershipinc dot com forward slash academy. For everyone who is already a subscriber, thank you so much. If you haven’t had a chance to hit the subscribe button yet, please do. You’ll be getting these great long format interviews once a week, and then also once a week you can look forward to a very short practical tip that you can put into action to make your next meeting significantly better. As always, thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time on the Meeting Leadership Podcast.

Thanks for listening to the Meeting Leadership Podcast. Be sure to subscribe for more strategies to help you become an outstanding leader, and don’t forget to rate and review so we can bring you even more great content. We’ll see you next time, right here on the Meeting leadership Podcast.

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Gord is on a mission to change the world, one meeting at a time. Over his 25+ years in business Gord has run or participated in more than 2000 meetings! Not only is Gord the CEO of Business Expert Solutions Inc. (owner/operator of Meeting Leadership Inc), but he is also a Facilitator, Trainer, Business Consultant, Author, Speaker and Podcaster who helps leaders learn how to have great meetings, so they can build outstanding organizations and serve their clients at the highest possible level.

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