Leadership Lesson: #UnconsciousBias at the Oscars

Looking at what happened with the Best Picture mistake at the Oscars teaches us an important leadership lesson about unconscious bias and what to do when it pops up. I’m sure no one really noticed the unconscious bias evident in the post-Oscars discussion of the Best Picture mistake, but I will highlight in just a moment.


First, let’s discuss what seems to be the presenting issue – a mistake was made and there are differing opinions on how it should have been handled. In my experience working with many leaders who are responsible for a variety of things like very important (and confidential) information, extremely large sums of money belonging to clients, or for setting the direction of company, there is one commonality no matter what their role or industry segment - they want whoever made the mistake to: 1) acknowledge it quickly, 2) fix it, and 3) course correct in the fastest possible way to get things back on course. In watching the Oscars live, it seems that this occurred, albeit, I would argue not in the fastest nor most effective way possible. Then why are we still talking about it nearly a week later? Well, I think it’s because as rationalizing humans, we have a deep-rooted need to know “why” something happened. The amount of “investigation” occurring in the hours and days following demonstrate that. All of this brings us not to “why” but instead, to blame. In seeking who to correctly assign and attribute the mistake to, there are multiple issues unearthed with respect to the mistake, seemingly, in an attempt to “blame” the correct person. Let’s look at the blame list:

  1. PwC
  2. Specifically, the two Partners from PwC
  3. Faye Dunaway
  4. Warren Beatty
  5. Typography (the card should have been better formatted)
  6. Jimmy Kimmel (he was playing another joke)
  7. The Academy (they made a mistake in the In Memoriam segment)
  8. Emma Stone (she should have taken her card)
  9. Leonardo DiCaprio (according to conspiracy theorists)

That’s a pretty long list of people, bodies of people, and things to blame for a mistake that was the certainly most embarrassing moment in history of the Oscars. However, regardless of who is to blame, the mistake happened. How will the outcome change if we figure out whom to blame? It won’t. The wrong winner was announced and it shouldn’t have been, so let’s shift the focus of the discussion to something we can understand better. Let’s focus on something we can address in other situations, if we choose to learn from the lesson – unconscious bias.

Let’s begin with a definition, to ensure that we are all operating under the same understanding of what I mean when referring to unconscious (or implicit) bias. Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) are behaviors or judgments that occur as a result of implicit attitudes, stereotypes or beliefs of which one is unaware, and often are counter to what one’s conscious attitudes and beliefs are. The implicit attitudes, stereotypes or beliefs that one has are completely automatic and cannot be understood based on introspection. Unconscious biases are more likely to occur when we are tired, under pressure, multi-tasking or otherwise cognitively engaged. (National Center for State Courts and UCSF)  Having led hundreds of workshops on the topic of unconscious bias, there are a couple of important observations to understand before I point out how this occurred at the 89th Annual Oscars. First, no matter how hard one tries, you cannot identify your own unconscious bias(es) by simply evaluating your thoughts and behaviors. Second, and this one I cannot stress enough, you do not have to believe in or support the unconscious bias for it to exist in your brain. Let me give a quick example, as a woman, I may believe that all women can be successful at work and at home. However, I may be impacted by the gender stereotypes that exist in American society, so therefore might have an unconscious bias that suggests that women are not as successful at work and are better suited for the role of mother or wife. This second observation is most critical as it is the one that causes us to feel guilty, wrong, hurt or any other negative emotion if, and when, unconscious bias is pointed out to us. Please keep this in mind as I highlight two examples from the Best Picture mistake.

Unconscious bias in action Example #1: In the moments immediately following the announcement, when people realized it was Moonlight that won Best Picture, the Internet was all up in arms about Faye reading the wrong name. Sure, that is actually what happened – she is the one who said, “La La Land”. But let’s slow things down and go frame by frame for a moment. Rewinding back to when Dunaway and Beatty first enter the stage, observe the behavior between Dunaway and Beatty. In their teleprompter-scripted text, Beatty was slow in getting through what he was to say. Dunaway is seen turning to Beatty, focusing very intently on him as he reads the scripted text. She nods in agreement and claps with encouragement when the audience applauds his statement on increasing diversity in the films this year. Little did I know, until I began researching this piece, it has been reported that during their rehearsal Beatty walked out and left Dunaway to rehearse the entire segment herself. This is important context because it may provide reason for why Dunaway was so focused on him as he was speaking. Perhaps she was unsure if he would do something unexpected like in their rehearsal? Beatty opens the envelope at minute 5:18, in this video clip, and takes a full twenty-two seconds before handing Dunaway the card. She is heard saying, “You’re impossible!” Observing the behavior between the two upon closer, and slower, examination, it is easy to see the building frustration in Dunaway and Beatty’s jovial, bordering silly, demeanor when he opens the envelope (which he addresses later in his apology stating he, “wasn’t trying to be funny”.) Dissecting the twenty-two second pause before the announcement, Warren does the following:

  • Removes the card from the envelope and glances down to read it
  • Upon reading the card, reaches back into the envelope looking for another card
  • He says, “The award for Best Picture goes to”, and looks again for something else in the envelope
  • Finding nothing, he hands the card to Faye, deciding (it appears) he won’t say who the winner is, though he appears as if he knows something is wrong.

However likely due to recency bias (memories of behavior or performance being skewed based on what happened most recently), no one remembers this level of detail when discussing the mistake, but it matters, even if the information is not available in our memory without a replay. In that moment, Warren should have paused in whatever way he saw fit, as it seems he knew something was amiss. It is not like a mistake has never been made before at the Oscars. Sammy Davis Jr. once announced a winner that wasn’t even in the category he was presenting because he was given the wrong card, but he clarified it was an error the moment he discovered it. There was a graceful way to handle the issue before it became a total embarrassment. Instead, it seems safe to assume Beatty thought his “behavioral clues” were enough for Faye to notice that something was wrong, so the blame of making the mistake is then attributed to her. Shouldn’t she have understood he was trying to tell her something? However, if he walked off in rehearsal, how could she know that he was attempting to signal to her that something is wrong? They had not practiced together. So why exactly am I arguing that this gender bias? Well, in all of the accounts that I have seen since the incorrect announcement (except for Warren’s on-stage admission of the error), either both are blamed for the mistake or she is blamed individually for actually saying the words. For at least the announcement portion of the error the mistake is solely Warren Beatty’s, if we assume it is a two-part mistake with the wrong envelope being part one and the announcement part two. However, it is my belief, that the stereotype against women is so strong in this society; the blame is placed on either the two presenters or singularly Dunaway as the speaker. When examined again the evidence indicates that Beatty knew something was not right (and he later admits after Moonlight is announced.) Faye had no knowledge of the error, so how is she to blame? She was simply trying to do what was asked, which was to announce the winner. He knew once he read the card that it was incorrect, as evidenced by him going back into the envelope two different times in the 22-second pause. If this unconscious bias were not so subtle, this level of detailed explanation would not be required to make the point it is gender bias. The behavior is so subtle, but the impact of unconscious bias can be so significant.

Unconscious bias in action Example 2: According to everything that I have seen online and in the news about the PwC Partners, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, meant to monitor the Oscar envelopes, the gentleman was the one who was responsible for the error. He apparently made several tweets that have now disappeared from his account, was photographed on his phone and enjoying the moment of being among so many celebrities on Hollywood’s most infamous night for the Motion Picture community. He even tweeted a picture of Emma Stone right after she won, which suggests that he was not entirely focused on ensuring the correct envelope was given to Warren Beatty. If the error was Mr. Cullinan’s, why then, have both Partners from PwC been dropped from all Academy dealings? Ms. Ruiz wasn’t even on that side of the stage, so how come she is to blame? Was she expected to know that her fellow partner handed the wrong card to Warren Beatty, how exactly? Based on what I observe, this seems to again be an instance where gender bias is at play but not consciously at all. Confirmation bias allows one to supply sufficient data to support a decision or point of view that supports or is in favor of one’s opinion, even if evidence is produced to the contrary. In this instance, my assumption, based on the public statements from PwC and the Academy, is that the “data point” being confirmed is there were two people responsible for getting it right and “both of them” failed to do that. This seems to be a somewhat emotional rather than a fact-based response. However, we have no evidence that Ms. Ruiz was otherwise occupied as we do Mr. Cullinan, at the time of the wrong envelope being handed off to Beatty. If there were such evidence, surely the press and social media would have been posting about her just as they were posting about Brian Cullinan’s activities in the moments after the error was discovered. In fact, she was apparently on the other side of the stage. How could she have known he gave the wrong envelope? Further, Beatty was on-stage with the wrong envelope for at least 5 minutes and 40 seconds before the wrong film was announced. Shouldn’t Brian Cullinan have realized in those nearly six minutes of dialog and film clips playing that he gave the wrong envelope to Beatty? Removing Cullinan and Ruiz from Academy activity is not the correct answer, since the evidence suggests the error was uniquely Cullinan’s, in my opinion as an outside objective observer. However, somehow Martha Ruiz is being blamed, too, for Cullinan’s mistake. Both have been banned by Cheryl Boone Issacs from the Oscars for life. I cannot help but wonder if a man were the second Partner from PwC in this instance, if he too, would have been fired for Mr. Cullinan’s mistake?

So what are we to do? The mistake has been made and, in two instances at least, women were subjected to unconscious biases of which no one seems to be aware or discussing. The blame list was created and narrowed quickly. This is definitely a challenging position in which to be for the Academy, Cheryl Boone Issacs, PwC, and Tim Ryan (Chairman of PwC), but this is a tremendous leadership opportunity. First, we need to be encouraging, advancing and rewarding leaders who are willing to be brave and speak up if they notice a mistake is happening and s/he takes action to mitigate the damage. Second, we need to remedy not only the mistake itself, but address the unconscious biases taking place and ensure that none of it happens again. My recommendation for doing this, based on the examples provided, would be to 1) slow all of the decision-making down, 2) gather all of the facts, and 3) make a decision based on those facts rather than emotion or haste. As stated previously, unconscious bias is more likely to occur if under pressure, time stress, or multi-tasking. How would the outcome have changed if we apply these new leadership behaviors? If Brian Cullinan had been paying attention, instead of multi-tasking, he might have recognized immediately he handed off the wrong envelope, in which case he or a stage manager could have quietly walked on stage and traded the envelope before there any mistake was made. Also, upon noticing the card was incorrect, Warren Beatty could have stated to the audience he wanted to confirm the information was correct and taken a brief pause. If we are to learn anything from this, it is that leaders should reward those who speak up, take action, sweat the small stuff (when it counts), maintain focus and most importantly, pause or timeout if needed to ensure the right outcome. Moonlight deserves their moment, but unfortunately, we won’t be able to do this one over for them. Hopefully, this leadership opportunity to mitigate unconscious bias won’t be missed next time. Follow me on Twitter (@kdlssays) to continue the conversation.