The Effect of Unconscious Bias on Sponsorship & Engagement

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The impact of “Micros’

Study after study indicates higher profitability and productivity with a more diverse environment;  leading to an emphasizes on Diversity and Inclusion tactics.  Yet, the numbers of diverse talent, including attorneys, senior leaders in corporate and public sectors have remained stagnant across most industries.

The disconnect is likely attributable to Unconscious Bias, a preference, of which we are not aware, that influences our common and everyday decisions and impressions typically resulting in subtle, unintentional and unconscious discrimination;  rather a bias in FAVOR of someone else vs. a bias AGAINST someone.

So what?

The impact of sponsorship on career advancement has become readily apparent- The benefit from sponsorship of influetntial leaders when assigning a new case, the attractive client or promotion, a leader may be biased in FAVOR of the associate that is most visible; who completed the last golf foursome or attended the latest happy hour.   Typically, one favors those of similar backgrounds with shared experiences, culture and associations.  In short, a bias that historically has excluded the female and people of color.  Not discrimination, but a bias in favor that excludes diverse associates.  The reality is everyone has unconscious biases, influencing daily decisions , including unconsciously influencing how organizations manage their talent pool-  AND by favoring others, leaders are providing an advantage to some and unintentionally disfavoring others.  The reality is that without sponsors, women and diverse lawyers are more likely to be compensated at a lower level and less likely to receive developmentally rich career opportunities or be promoted at the same rate as white men. 1

As human nature trumps most good intentions, addressing the bias with strategic tools can alter this trend and positively create a domino effect to benefit associates (via career advancement & increased compensation) and the firm (via increased production, client acquisition and improved employee retention)

“In Favor Of” – Tools for Managing Partners

Most leaders discount Diversity & Inclusions topics for other pressing matters, apparently more urgent, without realizing that changing demographics are impacting today’s realities. By 2050, minorities will be the majority and per the 2012 US Chamber Small Business Study, firms owned by African Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans have grown 523%, 545% and 696% respectively from 1982 to 2007.  In comparison for the same time frame, businesses owned by Caucasians grew by 81%.

Additionally, the burgeoning minority will seek to deal with attorneys that understand them;  and more corporate clients are seeking the stats around firm’s composition, including the number of female and diverse partners prior to awarding an engagement.

Therefore, connecting the dots between building a diverse talent pipeline and recruiting diverse attorneys is paramount. The key to sustainable improvement is ENGAGEMENT and RETENTION of these diverse attorneys. Young diverse attorneys eagerly join firms striving to contribute and become successful.  Without support and guidance, implemented through engaging onboarding processes, these attorneys will simple disengage and go elsewhere.


Mentoring Programs, supported by senior leadership, authentically, with resources. Creating an environment where the mentors understand their investment and willingly becoming political supporters for the mentees.

do to ensure that their behaviors match their intentions? 

Since unconscious biases are often deeply ingrained, leaders must make conscious efforts to not only recognize them but also act to counter them (interrupt their own biases).   Leaders must be aware of their own, others, and organizational unconscious biases and actively support people who think and behave differently.  Leaders need to actively expand their own professional networks to include diverse individuals who can help broaden their perspective.  Leaders should practice the following bias breakers:

  • Anytime you find yourself surprised, check yourself. What surprised you? Why? What was your expectation?
  • Break out of your personal and professional “in-groups.”
  • Develop a relationship with a colleague who you don’t know well.
  • Question your assumptions about individuals, especially if you experience discomfort, confusion or distaste.
  • Oppose yourself before making a decision.
  • Build-in productive conflict on your teams and in your decision-making process.
  • Identify some “sacred cows” (strong opinions) in your thinking then, hypothetically slay them to explore what would happen.2

Such programs need to be authentically supported by senior leadership and given adequate resources to be continued for the long term until change is effectuated.   Such programs need to address the impact of unconscious bias and sponsorship on workflow, evaluations, feedback, recruiting, retention, advancement, leadership, and client development/service.  We need to get to the point where leaders are accountable for results in this area.

3)  Routinely analyze the impact of underlying messages, called micro-messaging  and become a catalyst to teach others how to convert feelings experienced as a result of underlying messages into a codified language that will allow for a productive discussion on  the impact of micro-messages on confidence, comfort, loyalty, and motivation to perform at peak levels.   Micro-messages are the keys to unlocking or shutting down potential.  Micro-advantages are positive micro-messages that have the power to unlock potential, while micro-inequities are negative micro-messages that have the power to shut down potential.  It is imperative that leaders learn to analyze and understand the effect of the small nuanced, yet highly influential, micro-messages that are sent and received on a daily basis.  Micro-messages as subtle as those conveyed by our body language, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, looks, gestures, and inflection have the ability to reveal biases, preconceived notions, and even more importantly whether an individual is part of the “inner circle.”  Individuals that do not make it to the “inner circle” do not receive the same types of assignments, feedback, and sponsorship opportunities, and therefore, their chances for success significantly diminish.  It is in the “inner circle” where loyalty and heightened performance grow. 3

Leaders should learn to use micro-advantages to unlock participation, creativity, and innovation in problem relationships with the goal of strengthening the relationships and potentially turning the relationship into a sponsorship by:

  • Actively soliciting opinions;
  • Connecting on a personal level;
  • Constantly asking questions;
  • Attributing/crediting ideas;
  • Monitoring their facial expressions;
  • Actively listening to all;
  • Drawing in participation;
  • Monitoring personal greetings;
  • Responding constructively to disagreement; and
  • Limiting interruptions.4

Why should leaders do this?   

Besides being the “right thing” to do, changing demographics are impacting today’s realities- According to the 2012 US Chamber Small Business Study, businesses owned by African Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans have grown 523%, 545% and 696% respectively from 1982 to 2007 while businesses owned by Caucasians only grew by 81%, not to mention the fact that by 2050 today’s minorities will become the majority.   The burgeoning minority will want to deal with attorneys that understand them.  If this is not enough motivation, the simple fact is that groups are better problem solvers and better in the way they do business if they have diverse perspectives and an environment that encourages inclusion of diverse perspectives. 5

The Shiny New Toy- Associate Tools

Diverse attorneys and women tell stories about how mentoring relationships help them understand themselves, their preferred styles of operating, and ways they might need to change as they move up the leadership pipeline.   By contrast, men tell stories about how their bosses and informal mentors have helped them plan their moves and take charge in new roles, in addition to endorsing their authority publicly.

Without  sponsors  women  and  diverse  lawyers  are  more  likely to  be  compensated  at  a  lower  level,  and  are  less  likely  to be  appointed  to  top  roles  and  made  partner.

But sponsorships cannot be forced through programs and training sessions; an effective sponsorship must develop through cultivated relationships.  An associate can accelerate this process by managing her career, brand, and understanding corporate politics.

The Politics

Navigating the politics of any organization is paramount to succeeding- What are the processes and operations? Who wields the influence? Are differing opinions discussed openly ? Invest the time and effort to learn the corporate culture.

Unconcious biases produces perceptions about your personality and capabilities ; perception is reality, but this reality can be changed through strategic branding, coaching and collaboration.

Are you seen as the loud one? Rash? Incapable? Seek feedback and be aware so to not sabotage your career due to a misconception. Focus your energy not on dispelling an erroneous perception, but on creating an accurate brand.

Personal Branding & Social Media

Leverage the unique factors that forged your personality, emphasizing your expertise and unique niche.  Build your brand via writing blogs, articles, presentations, becoming a “subject matter” expert.  Acquire non-traditional experience through non-profit and association board/committee service.  Typically, your expertise is welcomed and often projects will help you hone additional skills.

Social Media- Carefully establish your digital brand, ensuring an appropriate image, avoiding any potential pitfalls.  There’s opportunity to leverage social media to build your brand.

We plan our vacations and our retirement as well as GPS every outing- why not a career plans? A written career development plan is a great conversation tool to strategize with mentors and sponsors as well as organizational leaders.

Leverage your plan to get folks invested in your success


The process of listening, absorbing before speaking, strategically engaging colleagues, collaborators, mentors and eventually sponsors, is principal to advancement.  Seeking and welcoming constructive feedback, shadowing effective performers/potential mentors to learn best practices and solidify relationships.

What can women and diverse attorneys do to find sponsors? 

Effective sponsorships develop through cultivated relationships.  Women and diverse attorneys can accelerate this process by:

  • Actively developing relationships broadly, deeply and often;
  • Scheduling meetings with key stakeholders to discuss their career;
  • Becoming a known entity by making themselves and their work visible;
  • Regularly asking for feedback and acting on it; and
  • Being reliable, collegial, and performing above expectations.6

In short, being strategically partnered with influential and authentic mentors and supportive onboarding while the associates maintains ownership and accountability for her career, cultivates the environment for sponsorship, which in turns leads to increase profitability, lo & behold, from an engaged team of talented attorneys.

Where do we go from here?

Continuing to “have the right intentions” will not have the desired impact on diversity and inclusion initiatives throughout the legal industry unless and until we actively address the fact that fundamental change in behavior requires more than identification of conclusions, it requires an in depth examination of the impact of unconscious bias on sponsorship and how we systematically interrupt such bias.


2011 ALA Guide to Cross-Functional Mentoring,, ALA.     Rikleen, Lauren Stiller; Success Strategies for Women Lawyers, Peoria:

 Ark Group, 2010.       Henry, Deborah Epstein, National Diversity Symposium, Philadelphia Bar Association, Philadelphia: October 8, 2011      Korkki, Phyllis, “For Women,

Parity is Still a Subtly Steep Climb,” October 8, 2011, The New York Times;  Why Men

Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” Harvard Business Review, September 2010,;

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