This is the third and final article in a series exploring implicit bias by CLO contributor Michael Bret Hood. Read more in PART 1: Understanding implicit bias and its detriment to organizations and PART 2: Implicit bias affects us all.
When you make decisions, do you try to take a rational approach when weighing the potential positives and negatives of the choices available in order to make the best decision possible? Or, are you more likely to go with your gut? Regardless of which method you choose, chances are you have made some bad decisions in your life. While most people believe decision-making is a rational process, research has proven that implicit bias can lead you to certain conclusions without your conscious awareness. For learning leaders, this can affect people throughout an organization.
By its very nature, implicit bias operates in the subconscious — a challenge to overcome for learning leaders. Frequently, you aren’t even aware that bias is interfering with your objectivity and your impartiality. Preparing yourself and others to overcome these hidden biases is a difficult proposition, but one that must be addressed if you value organizational culture.
The building blocks
A foundational building block to mitigate implicit bias is to raise awareness of its existence. Inasmuch as the word “bias” suggests a negative connotation, efforts to raise awareness can be difficult since people do not like to think of themselves as “flawed.” Yet if your colleagues are aware that implicit bias exists and are aware of how it can significantly impact their decision-making, they can be better prepared to mitigate the impact. Self-awareness and accountability are crucial in overcoming implicit bias in the workplace. Being more aware of how implicit bias can compromise your objectivity can activate System 2, which can have the effect of introducing conscious and deliberate thought into the decision-making process. “By discussing the unconscious biases and bringing them to a conscious level, everyone in the organization can be aware of how these can influence their decision-making while hiring, promotions, and mentoring,” writes Forbes contributor Pragya Agarwal.
Another important step in mitigating implicit bias inside an organization is through teaching your colleagues about the different biases that exist. From racism to gender bias to affinity bias to confirmation bias, there are over 100 different decision-making biases that affect organizational processes in some manner or form. Agarwal suggests that discussing these biases and “naming them can make them more explicit and transparent, and transform organizational culture.”Such training allows colleagues to potentially diagnose when implicit bias has interfered with organizational processes such as hiring, promotion, and career development opportunities.
In addition, proactive steps can be taken to implement policies and procedures that can remove or minimize systemic processes that inadvertently or inherently are affected by implicit bias.
One such example emerged from orchestras. In the 1980s, women made up approximately 10 percent of the total members in the country’s top orchestras. It turned out that gender bias was acting as an unconscious barrier to more women joining. To combat this, orchestral leaders started using blind auditions during the 1970s and 1980s — implementing this structural change removed the implicit gender bias during the audition process, the results completely reversed the stereotypical thoughts that existed in the orchestral leaders. Traditionally, musicians who were trying out for positions would come onto a stage and play in front of the talent evaluators. When musicians started auditioning behind a curtain, the fact that evaluators could no longer see who was playing neutralized any potential for gender bias.
After blind auditions were implemented, the odds of a woman earning a position in the orchestra increased by 50 percent. The talent evaluators mitigated their unconscious biases even further by asking musicians to remove their shoes before walking onto the stage behind the curtain because the process could be influenced by the sounds of heels walking across the stage.
Eliminating bias in your workplace systems
If you were to look at the hiring or learning and development selection processes, do you have a system where certain information about the candidates is hidden from the evaluators so as not to allow implicit biases to influence the decision-making process? There are a number of systems inside an organization where implicit bias is allowed to fester because the steps required to make the system fairer and more impartial have not been taken.
Training can certainly make people more aware of how implicit bias infiltrates an organization but until concrete action is taken, a number of employees will perceive a lack of procedural justice and fairness. Some of your best talent could leave if their concerns are not systematically addressed. According to a 2017 Conversation article about a controversial internal memo written by an employee at Google, some of the questions leaders of companies should be asking themselves are: Do job advertisements use gender-neutral language? How much demographic information should be requested on the application? Are there new methods of advertising job openings that will reach a more diverse group of applicants? Are performance evaluation systems evaluated for gender neutrality?”
These same questions can be adjusted to account for racial and cultural differences that naturally occur in organizations due to things such as affinity bias, which is the tendency for people to hire, promote, and develop people that look, talk, and possess similar experiences. “We must also recognize that the old adage, ‘trust your gut,’ may not prevent us from recognizing implicit bias,” writes Karen Steinhauser in “Everything is a Little Bit Biased.” “We must focus on how we form opinions about people. Sometimes it means asking ourselves whether our opinions would be the same if the person were a different race, gender, or religion or dressed in a different manner.”
Another method to offset biases involves matching job requirements and development opportunities with candidates’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. During the hiring process, evaluate candidates based on a list of requirements for each role instead of evaluating candidates against each other: “This allows you to avoid contrast bias (or contrast effect): the tendency to compare candidates or employees to each other rather than comparing them to a preset company standard.” Moving to objective from subjective standards helps you to avoid the biases that are massaged by referring to “cultural fit” as well as “our type of candidate” justifications.
Bias and decision-making
According to Michael Levine of Psychology Today, rationality only represents about 20 percent of human decision-making. It is said that emotions drive 80 percent of the choices Americans make, while practicality and objectivity only represent about 20 percent of decision-making.” Certain conditions can also lead to an increased reliance on System 1 thinking, which is where your biases reside. Levine also states, “If you make a decision feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (or God-forbid some combination of more than one of the above) emotion wins 100 percent of the time and will likely push you in the wrong direction.”
When employees are cognizant of the situations where implicit biases are most likely to be a significant factor in decision-making, awareness can potentially mitigate the nefarious effects.
Kriti Jain, an associate professor at IE Business School, suggests you can improve decision-making by deploying a technique called “consequential reflection,” which prompts people to reflect on the positive and negative consequences of their decisions. By getting people to stop and reflect on what they are about to do, you would be activating the conscious part of the brain, which is where more rational-based decision-making takes place.
By engaging in consequential reflection, learning leaders can engage System 2, more deliberate thinking, and consider not only the direct impact of the decision to be made, but also the ripples that will affect the careers of those who are passed over.
Consequential reflection can also lead to the generation of different perspectives, which can be another means to reduce the effects of implicit bias. Framing problems from the perspective of others can assist in generating questions that could uncover implicit biases as well as systemically unfair policies and procedures that limit opportunities for others. Perspective-taking “can be very useful in assessing the emotional impact on individuals who are constantly being stereotyped in negative ways.”
It begins with leadership
The challenge in pursuing these strategies lies within each individual in your organization. Inasmuch as the organizational leaders set the tone for the organizational culture, acceptance and buy-in from these individuals is paramount. “The human brain is a wonderful gift, but with success and tenure we are fooled into certainty and drawn away from humility,” writes Forbes contributor Michael Brainard. “As leaders, we must remain humble around our unconscious bias and acknowledge the impact our biases have on the decisions and agreements we make at the individual and collective levels.”
Humility is an important component to mitigate implicit bias. Leaders who acknowledge that they are just as susceptible to implicit biases as anyone are capable of creating a culture where employees can contemplate the possibilities of flawed decision-making induced by stereotypical associations as opposed to compounding their mistakes by sticking to decisions and systems that reinforce erroneous implicit associations and stereotypes.
Learning leaders should also understand that self-awareness, as it relates to implicit bias, is more than consciously thinking about which biases might lead to flawed decision-making. The constant “questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions,” writes psychologist Daniel Kahnemann. “The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are higher.” Following this path will require you and your colleagues to understand the role of emotions as they relate to implicit bias and System 1 thinking.
By now, you understand that the more you can engage and incorporate System 2 thinking into your processes, the less likely implicit bias is to interfere. Jennifer Eberhardt, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, suggests slowing down your thinking processes as a method to mitigate implicit bias: “There are lots of things we have at our disposal to manage the potential for bias, and one of those things is just slowing down. When people are looking over potential applicants, some data suggests that when resumes come in, the people hiring look at it for six seconds on average. Slowing people down is a good thing. You want to slow people down so they don’t fall back on automatic associations and act without thinking things through.”
As much as you may not want to acknowledge it, you are not as rational as you believe yourself to be. Neither are your colleagues or your workforce. Implicit bias interferes with your decision-making, perceptions and behaviors every single day. If you ever have a chance of overcoming these hidden biases and muting their effects, you have to be aware that most of your decisions are made with System 1 automatic thinking. By taking your time and deploying System 2 to generate new perspectives, practice consequential reflection, learn more about implicit biases, and fundamentally accept that you are flawed, you, as a learning leader, can create a more diverse organization and culture where people are allowed to thrive even when we look, behave, and act differently than others.