The trap of the Unconscious Bias

We all have biases. If we like it or not. Some of them are unconscious or implicit. You know, when you react to something from your ‘gut’ without all the information you need? Or you judge someone quickly and later think ‘I should have taken some time to get to know this person first.’? Our biases operate on a lot of peripheral things that are going on in our minds and in our brains that we are not necessarily aware of. But they impact our decision making in more ways than one. How can we combat unconscious bias and make better decisions and have more inclusive workplaces?

What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias happens when we act on subconscious, deeply ingrained biases, stereotypes, and attitudes formed from our inherent human cognition, experiences, upbringing, and environment. We, as humans, are heavily influenced by our primary, innate biases. We apply something called “social categorisation,” whereby we rapidly and routinely sort people into groups. This research explains that social categorisation happens quickly and is all around us. Whilst these mental shortcuts allow us to process information faster through prediction, they also impact our decision making and we make untrue assumptions.

How does it affect people and the workplace?
Acting on implicit bias means that we do not see our world as it really is, we see our world the way our bias allows us to see it. One obvious area is recruitment. Research shows that most people unconsciously categorise someone and make their hiring decision on that bias within seconds of meeting that person. The rest of the interview and types of questions simply steer towards confirming that bias. The bias can be gender, racial, behavioural, aesthetics etc. based. Basically, our brain goes straight to the question: do I like this person and will I hire them? It leads to wrong hiring decisions far too often.

But there is more to bias in hiring and promoting processes. We often measure employees against an implicit assumption of what talent looks like. It’s our ‘template of success’, like what school or university they went to, if they have an MBA etc. We need to scrutinise our template of success and evaluate the criteria behind those templates.

“Diversity makes us smarter” – Katherine Phillips (Columbia Professor)

Unconscious bias can result in too much ‘sameness’. We naturally like people who are ‘like us’ but we know that when it comes to innovation, diverse teams are more successful than homogenous groups.

As implicit bias impacts our decision making (not just in the hiring process) it has a direct effect on organisational performance. As Paul Gibbons says, for most decisions we rely on affective, subconscious and effortless cognitive processes (our gut). And there is a time and place for those. But as they are error-prone, we need to put to work controlled, mindful, effortful and rule-based reasoning more often. As leaders we need to recognise when it’s time to make ‘fast and frugal’ decisions and when we need more information, data or analysis to ‘make the right decision’.

How to combat unconscious bias:

Accepting. It starts with accepting that unconscious bias exists and that we all have preconceptions about people, preconceived templates of success and a natural high preference on how we make decisions.

Awareness. We then need to create awareness about when it happens and learn to question our beliefs and decisions, even when they feel right. We have to get out of the ‘trap of our unconscious bias’.

“Delay our intuition until you’ve gathered more facts than you think you need.” – Prof. Daniel Kahnemann.

Slow down. When we are under pressure, which happens often when we interact with people, we tend to rely on our ‘gut decision making’ and with that our bias more often. Negotiate time to gather more information to make a decision or give an answer.

Cultivation of mindfulness. Decisions with destructive emotions tent be inferior (fear, anger, pride). Learn to gain emotional awareness and use emotional intelligence as a foundational skill to make decisions.

Processes. Especially in your hiring and evaluation process, make sure you review and scrutinise the type of questions you ask. Will the answer help you make a more conscious and objective hiring decisions? Question your templates of success. What does a successful candidate really look like and how will they add value to the team or organisation? This is called ‘additive contributions’. Instead of following a safe bet, and ‘hiring people like us’, look outside the ‘usual way’ of doing things and question your bias. Listen for the right attributes. For example, when talking about their past, what are the lessons learned: are they open to reflect on possible mistakes, wrong turns. It will give you insight about how they adapt, change and how they learn which are conscious decision-making markers.

Remember: Sameness blocks performance. Diversity spurs innovation.

Develop soft skills. Listening, reasoning, questioning, reassessing and reframing – all of these are necessary skills to tackle biases. Invest in personal and professional development for yourself and your teams to improve those skills.

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