Let’s face it, we live in a diverse society and it is almost impossible to build a non-diverse workforce. Yet we know that prejudice negatively affects how we use and treat our diverse resources, so we have actions in place to fight discrimination and measures to monitor progress. Then how do we end up with statistics like “in the US 60% of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall, whereas less than 15% of men are over six foot tall”? This seems to have nothing to do with classic discrimination, yet it points to a similar issue: selection criteria influenced by irrelevant factors. Neuroscience explains this with the term Unconscious Bias, a more serious issue than discrimination.
Unlike prejudice-based discrimination, which is the result of chosen and conscious actions, Unconscious Biases are assumptions that we are not aware of, but that strongly influence our decisions including many involuntarily discriminatory actions. Such Unconscious Biases are often in play when we hire, promote and fire and can lead us to decisions that seem based on overt prejudice even when it is not the case.
Unconscious Biases are the deeply rooted reason why Diversity Strategies often fail. They are the most frequent cause of mistrust, suspicions and conflicts. They are the breaks that block our curiosity for the different, and the blindfold that filters out relevant information. They are the dangerous shortcut’s of our brain that cripple our ability to make critical decisions.
Research has widely substantiated the extent of this issue,which involves every aspect of our personal and professional life. In test after test scientist have for example observed how easily we fall into the trap of choosing “tall, thin, extroverted” vs. “short, fat, introverted” and how easily we justify these choices with apparently rational reasons. Even the words “short, fat and introverted” give us an instant reaction of dislike, don’t they? But how important is our body size or appearance when we need to select a negotiating partner or recommend a colleague for promotion? Do we really believe that every overweight person is lazy, greedy and stupid?or that every introverted person is shy, socially inept and dull? Yet, these are hard-to-die myths, as much recent literature shows (e.g. “Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain; “Unconscious Bias Theory inEmployment Discrimination Litigation” by Audrey J. Lee, Harvard Law-school)
Of course there are still a number of cases where people are consciously hateful, hurtful and biased; real cases of blatant and purposeful discrimination. Fortunately they are gradually becoming exceptions;in the business world, they are the toxic friends, bosses, partners and colleagues that we all have the social responsibility to identify, isolate and re-educate.
Unconscious Biases are not exceptions; we all have some Unconscious Biases. This subconscious categorization process is heavily influenced by our upbringing, our experiences and by the media. We form positive associations with people who are like us (physically and socially), which in turn leads to negative categorization of those we perceive as not like us.
According to Nobel laureate Kahneman, our brain is a lazy decision maker: it uses shortcuts to screen out unfamiliar things and it assigns trustable familiarity according to time of exposure.
Consider these examples:
Memory study conducted by psychologist L. Jacoby. He had asked people to read a list of names from the phone book, such as “Sebastian Weisdorf”, and rate how easy they were to pronounce. A day later, those same people were handed a list of names that included famous people, others from the phone book, and some names from the list they had read the day before. Asked which were famous people, the study participants incorrectly classified Sebastian Weisdorf and others, whose names they had learned just the day before, as famous.
When Dr. M.R. Banaji repeated the study with female names, she found that female names were far less likely to achieve fame in the same way. When she grilled participants later, to try and figure out what could lie behind the discrepancy, she was struck by one thing: it occurred to no one that gender might be a factor.
Businesses have just started to grow concerned about the influence of Unconscious Bias on productivity; how can we trust the soundness of our business decisions when we are unable to recognize our self-deception?
The first step is to raise awareness around the basic fact that everyone is biased. Once we acknowledge and accept this, we are ready to embark in the journey to understand, challenge and overcome the most dangerous and critical biases, via proper training and especially an education to continuously challenge our assumptions.
This requires a belief and a commitment from the top; we call it raising the ABC flag (ABC = “Address the Bias Challenge”). Raising the ABC flag must be part of the strategic commitment of a company and ABC programs must become part of the day-to-day behavioral requirements of all teams and functions.
A comprehensive ABC program must include the following seven steps:
Declare Intention: Share information guides on Unconscious Biases, explaining how we all make unintentional mistakes and how we can help each other to create better workplace collaboration and fairness. Take a clear company position; include the intention to mitigate negative effects of bias in the company vision.
Gather facts: Analyze current situation, looking for hidden biases in employment life cycles. Conduct surveys (including collection of anonymous feedback of current and previous employees). Run statistics for all levels and functions, benchmarked with total population.
Ensure objectivity of assessment – consider using external consultants with proper preparation
Hold Ownership – remember that also consultants are biased, so stay in the driving seat to serve the interests of your own company; prioritize in line with your company strategy.
Offer customized training, and follow-up implementation, to help acquire best practices behavior and sustain a critical approach to challenge assumptions.
Offer anonymous third-party independent complain boards
Monitor, celebrate success and sustain.
How can Grooa help you raise the ABC flag?
Consultancy ABC project support, including surveys and training programs
Unconscious Bias Awareness Training for Teams and Individuals
Executive Coaching focused on discovering and overcoming Unconscious Biases
Contact us for more information or a free consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org