You can find it in every work environment, but most of us don’t see it. It interferes with good management decision making, affecting everything from hiring, promotions, layoffs and teambuilding to advertising, marketing, product development and product placement. It impacts our thought processes and can cloud our judgement. “According to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, we are faced with approximately 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. However, our brains are only able process about 40 of those bits of information at one time. So, the brain generates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions. Most often, we don’t even recognize it’s happening.”1 This unconscious bias results in our making decisions based on what we expect, especially when it comes to “people” decisions like hiring the best person for the job.
“Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests,” writes Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji in Harvard Business Review. “But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.”1 The result is our multiple unconscious biases serve as boundaries restricting and confining decision-making capabilities, as we see in the situations described below.
#1 — Jim approached the next candidate for the open marketing research assistant at his company. He was excited to interview Janelle, because she recently graduated from the same college Jim attended, had great experience from her previous company and was highly recommended by a mutual colleague. While waiting for Jim to arrive, Janelle listened to some music on her mobile phone and answered a few emails. When Jim greeted Janelle, he was taken aback by her business casual attire, her natural curly hair and the backpack she slung over her shoulder as they walked to his office. After the interview, his enthusiasm disappeared and he was reluctant to offer Janelle the job. Jim is a 54-year-old White male from suburban Detroit. Janelle is a 26-year-old bi-racial woman from Madison, WI.
#2 — Angela is a 37-year-old Latina single mother from Chicago who advanced to IT director at a Minneapolis area Fortune 100 company. She is in the midst of presenting her recommendation to implement a new manufacturing system in the company manufacturing plant in North Carolina, a project she’s researched for six months. The meeting includes her peer, Nathan, the second IT director, a senior IT specialist, the division vice president, vice president of finance and vice president of engineering. All are White males in their mid-50s. Nathan is married with two children. In the midst of her presentation, the division vice president, Paul, wholeheartedly supports Angela’s recommendation and gives the green light for the project. He stresses the need for a strong leader on-site in North Carolina, and then assigns the project to her colleague, Nathan. After the meeting, when Angela asked Paul why he suggested Nathan, Paul replied, “Well, I know you have to be available for your daughter.”
#3 — Becky, a 60-year old white female, came home from work distraught. She explained to her husband that she had been put on a performance improvement plan by her new boss. She was upset and confused, since she had received exemplary annual performance reviews each of her 23 years at the mortgage brokerage firm at which she worked as an account manager, until they hired Marcus. He is a 28-year-old supervisor and the new Client Relationship Manager. Marcus told Becky that she wasn’t effective at managing her clients as he’d like her to be and that she needed to be more efficient in communicating with clients, perhaps using more email and reducing face-to-face and phone contact. He thought Becky needed to give this area of her job extra attention. He suggested she attend supplemental webinar training, despite the fact that Becky had been commended by internal and external customers for the extra care and personal touch she brings to her job and had trained all of the new and younger account managers at the firm.
In each of the three situations, bias is the main culprit behind the decision making. Whether biases are based on age, race, marital status, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or other factors, our biases impact our world view and how we understand, respond, and react to every experience. What can we do to defeat the unconscious bias that influences who we hire, fire, promote, and value as high potential in our organizations? Here are six strategies every person can apply right now.
Check Your Initial Thoughts
Your first impressions may be clues to any biases you have. Ask yourself, “Would I feel the same way, if this person were part of a different group?” Pause long enough to give yourself time to process what you are doing and how biases might be affecting your decision.
Utilize the power of logic. Process how many people you actually know that conform to your actual bias. You will likely find that the number of people that conform to your bias that you personally know is quite few. Avoid allowing urgency or professional pressures to cause you to override logic and default to bias.
Focus On Skills And Eliminate Distractions
Ensure job candidates go through the same selection process when hiring for an open position. Define clear evaluation criteria and standards prior to reviewing resumes. Implement blind resume reviews, eliminating any identifying factors that could bias hiring managers. Avoid unstructured interviews by using assessments and predetermined interview questions.
Check the Data
Review company hiring trends over a specified period time. Does the data reveal a tendency toward hiring White males and away from hiring underrepresented people groups? Is there evidence of a preference for candidates under 30 years of age?
While management may stand in denial over any internal corporate bias, disproving the data in company records may reveal another story. Look at the data.
Tackle the “M” Word – Microaggression
You may have seen or experienced a time when someone was new and tried to join in a conversation with a group and they responded by acting as if the person wasn’t in the room, by physically turning away from them or by talking to everyone around the person never acknowledging their presence. Or perhaps, you were the one, consciously or unconsciously, who ignored the new person. With body language, words and distinctly pernicious behaviors, we send subtle and not so subtle signals that adversely impact our current and future interactions with individuals we encounter at work and throughout our circles of influence. These all too familiar behavioral and verbal indignities that convey insulting, unwelcoming and sometimes intimidating comments about race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and gender are called microaggressions. As team members become aware of who they typically interact with, how they interact with one another and how their behavior and language affects others in their workspace, the environment becomes more equitable for everyone and the effects of unconscious bias dissipate.
Act as if the bias doesn’t exist. Intentionally adjust behavior to counter any biases you tend to exhibit. Set a month long specific, measurable goal to try new language and behaviors and note the differences in your encounters with team members. Don’t hold so rigidly to what you think you know, that you disregard evidence of anything that might change your mind and thereby change your actions
Value difference and concentrate on commonalities. Lead to connect ideas and people — as one who builds bridges between cultures, between gender, between generations, trying to find common ground. Reach out to people who are different and talk about music, food, movies, books or sports. As you realize how little difference exists, bias begins to fade.
The bottom line is this: The desire to defeat unconscious bias is not enough. In order to see organizational improvement and increased productivity, strategies have to be implemented in the workplace leader to leader, team to team and business unit by business unit. Desire is a powerful force for change. However, a rational and open mind are the necessary tools. One without the other gets us nowhere. To defeat unconscious bias, we must have an awareness of unconscious biases, use our thoughts to weaken them and behave in ways that run counter to what our unconscious biases tell us to.
1 Porter, Jane. “You’re More Biased Than You Think.” Jane Porter 10.06.14 5:33 AM. FastCompany.com, 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.