Can you recall a time when you first met someone at work? What was your first impression, and how was it formed? Would it matter if the person before you was taller or shorter than average? Could the manner in which the person was dressed impact your assessment of their competence? If the person before you was obese, would you assess their motivation in a different manner? In these instances, unconscious, implicit associations likely played a role in your subsequent behavior and decision-making regarding the person you just met.
No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to stop the process described above. It is our nature to judge, assess and categorize the people we meet. The good news for all of us is that we can frequently continue our conversations with one another and gather more information to make a more informed decision, which can overcome our initial stereotypical associations.
Organizations around the world are realizing that these natural mental stereotypes are having a negative effect. Yet, they continue to struggle with diversity and inclusion efforts. One of the biggest impediments to accomplishing the goals of D&I is implicit bias — also referred to as unconscious bias — the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.
The current state
Research has proven that unconscious affinity bias, which is defined as a tendency to favor others who are just like you, negatively impacts both profit and organizational culture. As Laura Berger wrote in a 2018 Forbes article, “According to McKinsey’s Delivering Through Diversity Report, gender, ethnic and cultural diversity, particularly within executive teams, continue to be correlated to financial performance across multiple countries worldwide.” Yet despite these findings, many organizations continue to lag behind in their efforts to expand their organizational diversity.
For example, only 7.4 percent of the top Fortune 500 companies have a female chief executive officer. This is also the highest percentage ever recorded. Contrast this with the fact that women, for the first time in almost a decade, now outnumber men in the workforce. While the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies is shockingly low in comparison to the percentage of women in the workplace, the percentage of Black CEOs is even lower. Currently, there are only four male Black Fortune 500 CEOs and no Black females who serve as CEOs for Fortune 500 companies. Black people make up 10 percent of the annual population of college graduates, but despite this fact, only 3.2 percent of senior-level managers and executives are Black.
While organizational leaders and boards of directors likely have good intentions with regard to promoting and advancing women, Blacks and other minorities, implicit bias interferes with decision-making and leading because of an unconscious affinity bias. This favoritism with in-group members occurs even when the outcomes discriminate against out-group members.
The effects of bias have a clear negative impact on organizations in the form of employee retention as well as profit loss. According to True Office Learning, “Employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely (20 percent vs. 7 percent) to be disengaged at work. Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year.” When employees perceive bias, they are more than three times as likely to plan on leaving the organization within a year. If people do not perceive that they have a fair chance to advance in the organizational hierarchy, they tend to seek other employment. This is especially true with younger generations.
A close look at bias
Bias is pervasive and, as a human being, it is not something you can avoid. Explicit bias, however, is different from implicit bias. With explicit bias, you are consciously aware of the bias you hold. For CLOs, explicit biases might be more manageable in that your colleagues will openly recognize the existence of their bias, but it can also be detrimental to organizational culture as it may be more difficult for people to confront or set aside the specific bias when having to collaborate with out-group members.
Since implicit bias operates on an unconscious level, it is harder to recognize and identify. It is not uncommon for people to make explicit and open declarations about their beliefs and attitudes, but unknowingly engage in behavior in direct contradiction with their stated beliefs and attitudes. While this behavior is not intentional, most organizations have inadvertently instilled systemic processes regarding promotion, hiring, etc., which sustains the effects of implicit bias.
Two thinking systems
If learning leaders understand how implicit bias operates in the brain, they will be better prepared to address it proactively. Acknowledging the potential for implicit bias to not only exist, but also interfere in decision-making, they can prepare and educate colleagues on how implicit biases can unknowingly impact organizational culture and perception. Daniel Kahnemann, author of “Thinking Fast and Slow,” characterized the human brain by classifying it into two separate thinking systems, which he referred to as System 1 and System 2.
System 1 represents the automatic thinking processes of your brain. Imagine driving down a country road when you turn a corner and see a deer in the middle of the road. What do you do instantly and without conscious thought? Chances are, you would react by applying the brakes or swerving to avoid the collision. This is System 1 thinking in action as your response was a quick reaction to the stimulus that arose.
System 2 is the opposite of System 1, in that System 2 requires rational thought processes such as analysis and contemplation before making a decision. System 2 is similar to purchasing a car in that you consider such things as features, safety, price and gas mileage, and then you enter into a negotiation on price.
On any given day, do you spend more time in System 1, your reactionary brain, or in System 2, the “think before you act” brain? You may be surprised to know that almost 95 percent of your daily decisions are made using System 1. Your brain is simply not capable of consciously processing all of the stimuli that surround you, so System 1 acts as a sort of filter to quickly process the items that do not need conscious thought. The danger in this is that sometimes System 1 processes things so quickly that you fail to recognize how System 2 has simply gone along with the gut instincts of System 1. In a situation that might require conscious thought, you may not take the necessary time to consciously evaluate what needs to be done because of System 1’s automatic processes. Not surprisingly, implicit bias operates within the realm of System 1.
A schema is a mental structure that allows you to organize your knowledge and provide mental shortcuts that help you simplify the world around you. Some of the mental shortcuts implanted in your brain are stereotypes derived from your lifetime of experiences. Mahzarin Banaji, a Yale University psychology professor, claims, “We all use categories — of people, places, things — to make sense of the world around us. Our ability to categorize and evaluate is an important part of human intelligence. Without it, we couldn’t survive.”
As soon as you are born, your brain starts collecting and storing information that helps you decipher the world around you. One of the earliest influences was your parents and the lessons you were taught when you were young. These early building blocks started to set the foundational stereotypes that System 1 relies upon in your decision-making processes. If your parents had strong beliefs toward items such as religion, race, gender and culture, chances are that some of those beliefs were transferred to you, setting up expectations of how the world around you was supposed to operate. The schemas have developed over time and been further influenced by friends, where you live, media and other life experiences.
If you have worked for an organization, your System 1 is likely to have developed schemas and stereotypes related to the workplace. For example, how many of your employees would cringe if you told them they had to attend an implicit bias training course? There are numerous expectations and stereotypes of people and processes in any workplace.
Bias and learning
Part of a CLO’s purpose is to help organizational members grow across a spectrum of knowledge, skills and abilities by providing employees value in the form of robust learning opportunities. According to a Robert Half study, a strong learning culture increased retention by between 30 and 50 percent in organizations. Despite this statistic, your organization may have built-in systemic biases that affect how we perceive the people within the organization, which can eliminate growth and advancement opportunities for some people in the organization.
Because of the way you categorize people, you and others in your organization may not prioritize or offer learning opportunities to deserving people because of unconscious bias. In a study of teachers, boys were more likely to be recommended for math/science-oriented secondary schools whereas girls were more commonly referred to language-driven schools. These systemic stereotypical views can damage organizational culture by discouraging people in the organization from attempting to expand their knowledge and skill sets. Forbes contributor Janet Gassam Asare writes, “If systems and structures are in place that allow hiring, promotion, and pay based on subjective criteria, this further maintains structural bias.”
Organizations are starting to realize that bias and stereotypes, especially those that are not at a conscious level, are severely limiting organizational performance and growth. CLOs and learning and development teams are going to be relied upon to address collaborative deficiencies as organizations eventually reach their diversity goals. When you understand how implicit bias works, you will be better prepared to integrate new teams and promote a culture of acceptance and inclusion despite our differences in appearances, backgrounds and cultures.