Unconscious Bias – Why tackling workplace bias is crucial for decision-making

    Alexandra Montgomery

     Last year’s racial bias incident at Starbucks, which led to substantial reputational damage and the temporary closure of 8.000 stores in order to administer anti-bias training to employees, prompted other companies to have a closer look at how workplace bias might affect their organisation. Many tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, already use bias-awareness training for their employees. 

    Studies show how unconscious biases can become a major obstacle to selecting the best candidate for a position, assigning an important project to the right people, managing a promotion on merit or simply offering a service that is satisfactory to the client. 

    If your organisation has a genuine interest in promoting an inclusive culture that allows you to overcome these obstacles and make more equitable and informed decisions, you need to be aware of underlying biases, which affect every-day decision making and take steps to counteract them. 

     What is bias & where does it come from? 

    Despite our complex and fast changing environment in the 21st century, our brains still work in a very similar way to when we were hunter gatherers who needed to avoid danger and ensure survival. Although the logical and conscious mind is able to analyse problems or situations and return a rational response, we do not always work that way. To speed up decision-making and reduce information overwhelm, an intuitive and automatic system is set in motion that can generate fallacies: unconscious cognitive biases. 

    These biases, or mental shortcuts, affect us in various ways. Firstly, cognitive bias can manifest in processing quantitative information where it leads to numerical errors and illogical judgements – these are usually easy to fix with new information or training. In general, left brain thinking (concrete, figures, logic, analogy) is less prone to bias than right brain thinking (abstract, creativity, feelings, synergy). However, today’s organisations also need to navigate in the unknown, innovate, connect and synergise – and these are areas prone to the second type of cognitive bias, based on intuition, attitudes and feelings. 

     Main biases and their impact on organisational performance 

     Substantial research has been done on biases and their effect on reasoning, decision-making and behaviour, such as the Nobel prize-winning research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In the following we outline the principal biases and their impact on organisational performance. 

    Halo effect 

    The halo effect is closely associated with “first impressions”. One positive attribute is amplified and we see the other person entirely in more positive terms. In recruiting decisions, this is a classic pitfall. The opposite can be true, too. The “horns effect” means that, if we formulate a negative first impression about a candidate, we tend to ignore any positive characteristics later on. 

    Sunk-cost or loss aversion bias 

    We become more attached to something once we have invested resources in it – time, money, effort, emotions. As a result, we are less inclined to give it up or change even though, economically, it makes more sense to go for an alternative. Focussing on the past does not take into consideration future cost. For example, your department has been running a project for 2 years and invested huge resources. It is becoming clear that the market requirements have changed but you hold off re-evaluating or pulling the plug even in light of new information that it is no longer viable. 

     

    Framing effect 

    This is very common and hugely exploited when presenting significant investment decisions and in advertising. We are influenced by the way in which information is presented rather than the factual information itself. If wording and presentation highlight the positive aspects, we are more inclined to accept the solution. If facts are presented poorly, we will tend to see risk and decision-making logic will be affected. For example, a new service creates 500 new high-skill jobs (but at the same time, 300 low-skill jobs will be lost). 

    Confirmation bias 

    What we would like to be true, strongly influences what we believe. Likewise, what we have experienced in the past, forms part of our expectations for the future. Once we have formed a view, we filter out information that confirms our opinion while ignoring, rejecting or forgetting information that would challenge our beliefs or preconceptions. This “self-fulfilling prophecy” can have very negative consequences when evaluating team members. The team member, for example, might have delivered an unsatisfactory presentation on a topic outside his core expertise, and the manager starts doubting both expertise and presentation skills even though subsequent presentations are excellent. 

    Anchoring 

    People get influenced by information that is already available or shown first. Another effect of anchoring is that we might address new problems by applying decisions we have made on similar problems in the past. This bias is highly significant in creative problem solving where it can limit open-sky thinking as we are using reference points created at the start. It can however be used to your advantage, too. In business negotiations, for example, the seller can open the conversation by indicating a price. Whatever the seller suggests, the buyer will unconsciously use to formulate a counteroffer. 

    Group or affinity bias 

    The social dynamics of a group situation often override the best outcomes, and the group in itself has a desire to reduce conflict. Dissent can be uncomfortable and even harmful to a person’s social standing, so conflicting opinions are either suppressed or downplayed in favour of more powerful voices. 

    There is also a tendency to favour those that are part of our group or are like us, be it from the same ethnic, cultural, professional or educational background. In recruiting decisions, for example, it is likely that you hold certain pre-formulated opinions about someone who attended the same university as you, and these opinions are likely to inform your decision, albeit in an unconscious way. 

    Strategies to counteract workplace bias 

    One of the challenges in breaking biased behaviour is its self-reinforcing nature: the bias gains more and more plausibility with increased repetition. The more previous success you had applying the bias – and of course this is completely unconscious! – the harder it will be to do something different. In coaching, we say “you become what you practise”. 

    The good news is that we can become aware of our own biases and preconceived beliefs and apply strategies to counteract their automatic interference in our professional and private lives: 

    Recognise personal biases 

    It can be uncomfortable to recognise and admit that we are biased, but change starts with awareness. Google, for example, use Harvard University’s implicit association tests to raise employee self-awareness and manage unconscious bias. 

    You will find it easier to spot bias in another person than in yourself. Sharing and validating our opinions with others before making decisions facilitates the elimination of biases. Use a mentor or coach or trusted co-worker to give you feedback. 

    Watch out for fatigue and mood 

    Before making important assessments, rest. Fatigue exacerbates bias and destabilises our emotional state. Pay attention to mood and physical wellbeing (including food!) during strategic retreats or meetings. Likewise, don’t rush from one interview to the next. Watch out for the epidemic “action bias” – the compulsive necessity to DO SOMETHING even when reflection might be the better option. 

    Mindfulness and coaching techniques can help before making important decisions as they create head space and invite a more balanced perspective. Breathing and movement techniques in particular are useful to connect your instinctual, emotional and rational self which will ensure a productive reasoning process and authentic response. 

    Deploy anti-bias methods and check points 

    A fairly simple way to check for bias is to dedicate time at key decision points in your internal processes. For example, before allocating budgets across various projects your team stops to reflect and actively scans their reasoning for bias. Or when deciding on selection criteria or critical assumptions to test in scenario work. You could put up a bias wall poster or use cards, both of which are available online. The point is to shift perspective, and often it helps to physically move, go to a different room or even for a walk. 

    Some teams have a set of routine questions to challenge themselves at critical decision points, such as “If we knew that xyz was true, what would we decide?” or “If we were to assume the opposite?”. Alternatively, bring in outsider perspectives through inviting external facilitators or colleagues from other functions. You can also assign different roles to individual members who play the “pessimist”, “devil’s advocate” or “wishful thinker”. 

    In addition, there are innovative tools and methodologies available to encourage divergent thinking processes and break bias intentionally. Six Thinking Hats, Opposite Thinking, Analogy Thinking, Brain Writing are a few examples. 

    Combine intuition with objective measurement 

    Listening to your gut instinct or intuition can often be a valuable (and accurate) source of information. These insights come from our unconscious – and according to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, bias is indistinguishable from intuition. The aim, however, is not to disregard intuitive information but to “de-emotionalise” it and synergise it with other information available to us. One way to sharpen the accuracy of our intuitive hunches is regular meditation and reflective practice, which activate more “rational” parts of the brain. Furthermore, look for evidence that your insight might be wrong. Does it look like something you have seen before? If so, it’s probably bias thinking. 

    Another good practice is to set out measurement and success criteria with as much objectivity as possible. This sounds obvious but agreeing on how you will measure success is often skipped, done half-heartedly or too late in the process when people have already formed opinions and leading ideas. A common challenge is that there is no explicit shared agreement why an initiative or project is necessary. This has to be the first step to avoid assumptions and bias.

     

    De-bias recruitment, promotion and performance evaluation 

    People management processes are notorious for bias. In recruitment, for example, remove the names before reviewing CVs (blind screening). Familiarise yourself with the biases prominent in hiring decisions, such as the halo effect, anchoring, confirmation and affinity bias. Standardise your questions and include a work sample test – let candidates do a typical task of the job you are recruiting for. Use psychometric testing and talent assessment software to provide objective data. This Harvard Business Review article gives more thorough tips on how to reduce bias in your hiring process. 

    The same goes for performance evaluations. According to a Harvard study, women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback than men. If your performance review has self-evaluation, remember the anchoring effect. Men are more likely to self-promote, so how the employee evaluates themselves will skew the review accordingly. To counteract these effects, have managers write down their evaluation before the performance conversation and/or use continuous feedback throughout the year. 

    Encourage and model diversity 

    A more diverse workforce and management that includes all generations, genders and functions will bring about diverse perspectives. However, diversity adds complexity, so it is important to educate people about the benefits and challenges of diversity through training. Encourage exposure to and connection with “the other”, for example, through inter-generational and reverse mentoring, exhibitions of counter-stereotypical pictures or art, and even “international food” days in the canteen. 

    Behavioural change is easier when we have role models, and management needs to encourage and model diversity in their day-to-day. If your organisation lacks diversity at present, for example, no women in top management or technical roles, you can bring in female consultants, presenters and real-life business case studies that show women in leading or expert positions. Or encourage qualified women or members of a minority group to lead high-visibility initiatives. 

    It is clear that our global interconnected world is challenging us to question our ingrained human biases while at the same time providing enough opportunities to shift perspectives and mental models and embrace diversity. This requires energy, awareness and openness to learning on the part of individuals, and a commitment on the part of organisations to provide space, structures and processes to accompany this evolving consciousness. 

     

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