Unconscious bias seems to be getting a lot of airplay these days in the field of diversity and inclusion. So just what is unconscious bias, can we eliminate it and if not, what can we do to mitigate it?
The standard definition is that unconscious bias is a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements (shortcuts) and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. It is also known as hidden or implicit bias.
We are all biased because our unconscious mind is geared towards bias and it is primarily the unconscious mind that drives our instinctive decisions.
David Rock from the Neuroleadership Institute makes it clear – if you think you’re not biased, it means that you don’t have a brain. We all have brains, and therefore we are all biased.
1. Foe before friend – we are naturally programmed to be wary of people who are new or different to our ‘tribe’. This is an evolutionary bias where being able to recognise difference and be wary of it kept us alive. The problem is that is doesn’t serve so well us in today’s multi-cultural and diverse environments.
2. We seek similarity – we are unconsciously drawn to people who are similar to us (linked to the foe before friend bias) and this plays out extensively in business, particularly in recruitment and selection and career advancement. It plays out in our personal lives too.
Think about the levels of diversity in your immediate circle of friends, how many are of a different ethnicity? If you are able-bodied and mentally strong – how many of your friends are of differing abilities?
3. Conscious awareness of our biases alone does not fix the problem. Even when we build strong awareness, our brain will revert to our default way of operating, especially in situations where we are busy (and not paying attention to our brain) or stressed. When in the thick of it, we don’t stop, reflect and think“now what unconscious bias might I be displaying in this situation and how can I change my behaviour?”
A 2009 review by Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Donald P. Green of Harvard Academy of International studies showed that the effects of most diversity efforts, including training sessions, remain unknown, and a 2006 study by Harvard University looking at data from 708 private companies found that diversity training didn’t produce more diverse workforces. Think carefully about investing a lot of time, energy and money in diversity training as you can’t train something you can’t control.
The most effective way to mitigate unconscious bias is to create systems and processes that limit its pervasiveness as well as improving self-awareness.
1. Utilise systems, tools and processes to help mitigate bias in the workplace
Many organisations are now removing gender, ethnicity and academic institutions of origin (University, College etc.) from resumes before the decision-maker gets to see them to ensure these don’t influence their choices.
There are a growing number of products and services available that actively aim to reduce bias in the workplace. For example, Textio helps you refine job descriptions and recruitment adverts that often contain potentially discriminatory language. GapJumpers is a ‘blind audition’ service designed to provide the best candidates for the job before you see them.
2. Familiarise yourself with key biases
Out of the over 150 known cognitive biases there are five that we could all benefit from learning more about. The acronym SEEDS was developed by Matthew Lieberman, David Rock and Heidi Grant Halvorson to help us remember the 5 key biases of Similarity, Expedience, Experience, Distance and Safety and you can read an overview of them in this Strategy & Business Article
To increase awareness of your own unconscious biases, take an Implicit Association Test or IAT developed by Harvard University.
3. Get an objectivity buddy
Give someone permission to challenge you on your implicit bias. Ask them to listen to the language you are using, to challenge the rationale behind important decisions you make and to offer healthy constructive feedback so that you continue to grow in awareness.
4. Have an open conversation at work
An effective way to deal with bias is to normalise talking about it in our work culture. Start a conversation. How are we potentially excluding people through our biases? What impact could our current diversity profile have on our future success? In what ways can we mitigate bias by adapting systems, processes and our cultural habits and norms?
At the 2015 Neuroleadership Institute Summit Rosalind Hudnell, Head of Diversity for Intel and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns from Columbia University identified significant business advantages to choosing greater diversity for the workplace. The advantages include increased innovation, creativity and problem-solving and reduced groupthink. Can we afford not to address this?