My Blog

Bias towards style over substance is keeping your real talent hidden

Thank you to the people who responded to my previous article Do you need to be extroverted to get ahead?


One of the comments raised another level of challenge - Unconscious bias toward style over substance.


If you were to choose one to to promote between people who have the following qualities – who would you pick?




Fast thinking

Action oriented




Attention seeking



Quiet/softly spoken


Slower thinking

Thinking oriented




Attention avoider




Whether you realise or not, most of us are mesmerised by some of the qualities on the left column. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, except that we fail to look beyond style into substance. The idea also follows my last article Remembering that your mind can be easily tricked in that we are easily tricked by what we see – style – rather than what is less visible – substance. There are people with both style and substance, of course. But it's not always the case.


The qualities on the right column are often seen as weaknesses and not leadership material. So many women I've spoken with through the Quietly Powerful Women's breakfasts expressed frustration about not being heard or taken seriously. They regularly see others who are listened to due to their style, regardless of substance. Or about being overlooked for promotions or jobs because they lack 'executive presence'. Christine Lagarde, Head of the International Monetary Fund, pointed at this issue from her experience as ‘When the woman starts talking, the men switch off’.


The problem with under-valuing people due to their styles are that:


We jeopardise true innovation and problem solving

  • We keep doing what we've always done - challenge to mainstream thinking doesn't get heard. Innovation efforts are likely to be biased toward louder ideas and may be missing quieter ideas with important substance.
  • Innovation efforts may result in 'who's got the best idea' rather than creating something new together, because the non-dominant, collaborative styles are under-valued.
  • Complex (often adaptive) problems don't get addressed properly, with too many quick fixes by action oriented leaders.


We jeopardise engagement of talent

  • We waste a whole lot of talent in organisations that may not fit the style we expect but have deep substance and leadership strengths.
  • Organisations are likely to be promoting and valuing style, and maybe leaving behind, disengaging or losing talented people with substance. As they don't feel valued, it can result in loss of confidence.
  • Talented individuals feeing under-valued drop out, some starting businesses that are the disrupters.


Benefits of Diversity and Inclusion are not realised

  • Senior leaders are often skewed toward the mainstream extrovert style, continue to promote similar styles and miss out on the valuable leadership qualities and substance of non-mainstream styles.
  • Diversity and inclusion efforts are slowed not only from visible unconscious bias (like being a woman or darker skin colour) but also not so visible biases against styles such as introversion, femininity, emotionality. I'm sure some quieter Caucasian men with feminie qualities experience this bias.
  • Benefits of diversity and inclusion are not realised at the coalface of everyday interactions. Even if minority groups get ahead, they may not be taken seriously due to differences in styles.


My optimism got a boost when I came across a McKinsey article Finding Hidden Leaders. There are progressive organisations who are acting on the fact that they may have leadership talent that are hidden due to biases against both visible (such as gender and ethnicity) and invisible (such as personality and working styles).


Valuing style over substance has serious consequences on innovation and engagement. What styles is your organisation biased against? At what cost?


Are your hidden leaders ready to be found? The Quietly Powerful Women’s initiative aims to help quieter women to succeed on their own terms (see The Double Glazed Glass Ceiling). Talented quieter professional women have been overlooked for too long due to this bias towards style over substance. February and March Melbourne introductory events (22/2 and 22/3) are open for registration (Melbourne breakfasts registration) and waitlist in open for Sydney (Sydney breakfast registration).


Related articles:

Introversion is not a disorder and femininity does not equal weak

Quietly Powerful – an oxymoron or truth

Stop killing potential with “You don't look/sound like a ...”

White paper: Quietly Powerful – be heard, get ahead and make a difference without feeling fake as a quieter professional woman

My Blog

  • Bust these myths and pick the right talent for the job
  • Is your inner calm muscle getting enough exercise?
  • Calm in the chaos