As a chief learning officer, you likely have experience with leadership development programs. Based on your experience, what are some of the best traits of successful leaders? Once you have crafted your list of leadership characteristics, take a moment to consider how many of these traits would be characterized as masculine. Would this subtle, unconscious bias affect your objectivity when selecting candidates for your organization’s leadership development program?
Columbia business professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson conducted an experiment in which they provided a group of business students with copies of an identical resume (from a real successful businesswoman) and labeled some of the resume copies with the name Heidi and others with the name Howard. Although the resumes were identical, the business students rated Howard as competent, likeable and a good colleague. Meanwhile, Heidi was rated as competent, but also as aggressive, selfish and not a team player. The students went further to identify Heidi as someone they would not want to work with.
Implicit biases lead us to harbor expectations of people that include, but are not limited to, what organizational roles they would be best suited for and, maybe more important, how they would fit into these roles: “Without realizing it, you might be assuming that male co-workers are more objective, strong-willed, decisive, practical and assertive than women,” according to the 2018 article “Women in leadership roles: Fighting implicit bias” published by the Association of California School Administrators. “Too often, when women display these same characteristics, they are viewed as angry or bossy by their female colleagues.”
Bias and assessment in the workplace
This type of flawed individual assessment is rooted in implicit biases. The effects are seen throughout organizations, especially when it relates to employee evaluations. In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article titled “Reinventing Performance Management,” authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall point to research conducted by Michael Mount, Steven Scullen and Maynard Goff and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2000 as one of the most comprehensive on how we rate people: “Their study — in which 4,492 managers were rated by certain performance dimensions by two bosses, two peers, and two subordinates — revealed that 62 percent of the variance in ratings could be accounted for by individual raters’ peculiarities of perception.”
Almost every organization deploys some system of employee evaluations. However, since we do not perceive people, work product, productivity and interpersonal skills all in the exact same manner, evaluations are frequently a reflection on how we individually see the world instead of how the employee has performed. Your System 1 thinking can inadvertently lead you to unconscious, predetermined conclusions, which are cultivated and supported in a prophetic self-feeding loop fed by one of the most nefarious biases of all.
Confirmation bias — your tendency to search, interpret and seek out information that confirms your existing mental schemas, beliefs, attitudes and expectations — leads you to categorize people in ways that often are not intended. These unconscious mechanizations unknowingly reinforce the stereotypes we expect to see, further cementing the implicit bias that exists. For example, who pops into your brain when you hear the following words:
- Construction worker
- Truck driver
When you read the words “nurse” and “librarian,” did an image of a woman automatically enter your brain? Likewise, did an image of a man enter your head when you read the words “construction worker” and “truck driver”? Despite the fact that we know there are male nurses and librarians and female construction workers and truck drivers, these gender stereotypes have been reinforced over decades.
When people in your organization don’t fit neatly into your categories, it causes cognitive dissonance — a state in which existing beliefs are inconsistent with the evidence available. In seeking to remove the dissonance, the brain often finds evidence that matches current beliefs. A 1981 study conducted by scholars William F. Brewer and James C. Treyens demonstrates how we “notice and remember things that fit into our schemas but overlook and forget things that don’t,” according to a 2019 ThoughtCo.com article. Even if the evidence points to a different conclusion, you will be reluctant to accept that conclusion if the evidence goes against one of your established norms. “It can even cause people to overlook facts that contradict their pre-established ideas because they are still unconsciously seeking to confirm ideas they believe they already know,” according to a 2015 Next City article.
Not only does this kind of decision-making impact innovation — as like-minded people do not have the same creativity as those with different perspectives — but it unconsciously reinforces stereotypes, which leads to consequences in the workplace. “Unconscious bias leads us to form teams based on what we know, what we are most familiar with, and what we believe would give us the outcome we desire,” writes Forbes contributor Michael Brainard.
When System 1 takes over, your choices on who gets the opportunity is substantially impacted by the mental schemas and implicit associations that have been formed over a lifetime.
Implicit bias can be broken down into two categories: descriptive and prescriptive bias. “Descriptive bias is the labels we attach and associate with certain social groups and communities, and prescriptive bias is how they are expected to behave,” writes Forbes contributor Pragya Agarwal. “When someone does not conform to these prescribed roles and behaviors they can be penalized or punished.”
The role of the leader
An executive manager at a government organization had a realization during an implicit bias training session. As he reflected on his past actions and behaviors, he realized that though he was mentally committed to diversity, he had unconsciously expressed favoritism toward those he liked and enjoyed being around. Yet when critically reflecting, he realized that what he perceived was a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which his favorite employees excelled and prospered while the rest were ignored and not perceived to be as valuable.
CLOs seek to cultivate a level playing field where everyone — no matter their race, age, gender or identity — has an opportunity to develop. But unwittingly, you could be creating more opportunities for those who you perceive as similar to you or for candidates who meet your perceived expectations of management.
Organizational cultures place an important role on the leadership of the executives. In many cases, these individuals set the tone for the entire organization. It is not unusual for CLOs to consciously and unconsciously accept the cues set by these leaders. Compliance with authority is something we all were taught from an early age. “For a significant part of an individual’s life, they are expected to accept and respect the authority of others within different hierarchical systems, originating within the family but also found in institutionalized organizations of authority such as schools and workplaces,” writes an unknown author in a University of Cambridge article, “Why Do People Obey Authority?” “With the internalization of obedience to authority also comes the notion of a system of rewards and punishments for obedience and deviance respectively.”
From the very first day of working for your organization, you started learning about what behaviors were and were not accepted. This, in turn, reinforced or established the mental schemas you needed to continue employment and, in some cases, thrive in your organization.
The more these schemas become entrenched in your automatic thinking processes, the more they affect your behavior. “Unconscious bias also undermines recruiting efforts and employee development, which can be destabilizing to an organization,” Forbes contributor Laura Berger writes. “Exacerbating these detriments are the fact that the majority of mid- to high-level placements in an organization are sourced through referral.” Yet high-level promotion and placement aren’t the only place where implicit bias appears. It also has adverse effects on the hiring process.
Race and gender bias are significant byproducts of implicit bias in that organizations are continually trying to match the applicant with the right “culture fit.” This is evident in hiring. In an American Sociological Review study conducted by Lauren Rivera and Andras Tilcsik, a group of attorneys was asked to assess potential candidates for entry-level positions at their firm. Like the experiment conducted with the group of business students, these resumes were identical except for the names — both male and female — as well as listed hobbies, which subtly hinted as to the applicants’ socioeconomic status. The attorney’s recommendations revealed the existence of implicit biases: “Resumes of males with hobbies associated with higher-class backgrounds — such as sailing or classical music — received significantly more callbacks than the resumes of the higher-class females. They also received more callbacks than lower-class males and females with hobbies such as soccer and country music.”
When the raters were asked to assess the candidates by cultural fit, the results were similar, with one striking difference: “Once again, these attorneys preferred to interview the higher-class male applicants. The attorneys indicated that they did not think that the lower-class applicants would be good fits for their firms’ cultures. They also believed that the higher-class women would be more likely to have work-family conflicts that would impair their effectiveness at work.” This study demonstrates how individuals draw implicit associations from descriptive details such as hobbies, names, age and gender.
Research has also shown that names can affect who gets called back for a job interview. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in which they sent out identical resumes labeled with different names, revealed the presence of implicit bias. “Job applicants with white names needed to send out about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.”
Whether you realize it or not, you seek out familiarity. When something is different from your norms, or even if a name is hard to pronounce, you are more likely to dismiss the person than someone who, as you perceive it, has a more traditional or easier to pronounce name.
An irritating manner in which implicit bias manifests itself in the workplace is referred to as microaggressions — those subtle digs directed at people which make them feel marginalized. While the individuals who cause microaggressions may not necessarily intend to hurt or marginalize subsets of a population, the cumulative effect of being bombarded by even well-intentioned comments can have a negative effect on individual attitudes and self-confidence. Examples of microaggressions include complimenting someone on their English language-speaking ability because they appear to be from another country, or referring to someone’s name as unique and different. Research has revealed that Black Americans suffer greatly from microaggressions. “Often, [microaggressions] are never meant to hurt — acts done with little conscious awareness of their meaning and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult,” according to The Microaggressions Project.
Throughout your lifetime, you have built a mental catalogue of implicit associations that have helped you survive. Yet these mental schemas have also arisen in areas that can cause you to unfairly and inaccurately assess others. As a learning leader, how you manage implicit biases in you as well as your organization may be the difference in employees’ perception of organizational culture. Those learning leaders who are able to mitigate the negative effects of implicit bias stand to improve the productivity and efficiency of the organization while also retaining employees and enhancing the work environment.