The Impact of Unconscious Bias on Leadership Decision Making
The unconscious mind is amazing.
It can process vastly more information than our conscious mind by using shortcuts based on our cultural background and personal experiences to make instantaneous decisions about everything around us.
The problem is that the unconscious mind is quite wrong a lot of the time – especially on matters that need rational thinking.
The reason behind this is unconscious biases.
All of us have them and they color our decisions without our realizing.
If you don’t think you fall into this category of people, consider taking some time to test yourself:
Now that we have your attention, let’s see why this happens.
UNCONSCIOUS BIASES ARE A FACT OF LIFE
Unconscious biases are unintended people preferences.
They are formed by socialization, our personal experiences and the representation of different groups in the media.
These experiences act as social filters in which we make assessments and judgments of people around us.
Research shows that it is a natural tendency to place people into social groups.
These social categories are often just based on visual cues such gender, age, height or cultural background.
They can also be based on more visually subtle characteristics like the social background, job, religion or political associations.
The unconscious brain uses associations based on social categories to develop biases.
For example, if we are constantly exposed to images of women working as primary school teachers or receptionists or men as plumbers and organizational leaders, these associations become wired within the human brain.
The unconscious brain uses social categories to make unconscious judgments of people who are similar to us and people who are different from us.
According to social identity theory, groups give us a sense of belonging and are a source of pride and self-esteem. People throughout their life belong to various groups that can be as small as the immediate family or as large and vague as the people that support the same football team.
Part of belonging to one group is being aware of the people that don’t belong to your group or are part of other groups.
In order to increase our self-image and our satisfaction of being part of that specific group, we tend to enhance (especially in our mind) the status of our group.
From this, root behaviors like the antagonism between football supporters, perceiving some races and national identities as inferior to others, or believing that some people are better suited to do a certain type of work because of their sex.
At the same, we divide the world into “us” and “them” based whether they are part of our in-group or an out-group.
According to the social identity theory, the in-group will discriminate against people of the out-group in order to enhance their self-image.
This behavior is so much rooted in our DNA that it is also seen among our close relatives – the chimpanzees.
Studies have shown that they can become extremely aggressive to chimpanzees that belong to a different group, even if they used to be in the same group in the past.
Anyone that has participated in team building activities should have noticed that quite often just the mere placement to a team makes its members feel more cordial to each other and more antagonistic to the members of the other team.
On the other hand, while we have been taught to see biases as the root of all evil, the truth is that biases are essential to our survival on this planet.
They are our guides, so we don’t hurt ourselves and reach a decision before it is too late.
Most of us like to think that to make a decision we first weigh all alternatives and arrive at well-thought-out conclusions. But every day we make countless decisions without even realizing it.
Every moment, we are inundated with around 11 million bits of information, and yet research suggests that our conscious brains can only handle something like 40 bits of information per second.
This means that our minds are constantly processing information, and for the most part without our conscious awareness.
Our brains evolved this way to ensure survival. This “automatic thinking” acts as a danger detector – determining if something or someone is safe. Where people are concerned, these decisions are hard-wired into us.
We respond positively to people we perceive to be like us and react against people perceived to be too different.
UNCONSCIOUS BIASES IN THE WORKPLACE
This “automatic thinking” is crucial in life or death situations, where we need to reach a decision in a matter of seconds… but it is not so great in the workplace.
Sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people.
When we see someone, whether we think about it or not, we are automatically making judgments about them.
These subtle assumptions on people can have seriously affected a leader’s decision-making on who they are promoting, who they are hiring, who they are putting in managerial positions, and ultimately take a toll on the organizations’ culture and productivity.
The most common work biases can be summarized in the following 6 categories:
1. Job postings bias
If you have trouble finding the right candidates for your job interviews, you may want to consider whether you discourage top talented candidates from applying to your job ads.
The biases we hold about people and what we consider as the perfect candidate can be reflected the content of the job ad. Many times, job postings are written based on stereotypes and opinions we have but we are unaware of.
For example, whether we think a position is better suited for a male or female candidate it is reflected in the adjective we use making them less appealing to the other sex.
Some of the most common “masculine” adjectives are:
While some of the “female” ones are:
Using gendered adjectives in your job ads can signal to the candidates that they would not be a good fit within your company.
Apart from the tone, even how long your qualification is can play a role. According to a Hewlett Packard research, women don’t apply to a job post if they are not confident that they are 100% qualified for the position, while men are happy if they can meet a 60% of the qualifications.
If you want to attract candidates that bring something different to the table and increase the diversity rate in your organization, consider toning down the copy of your job postings.
2. Recruitment process bias
Recruiters are often very confident that they get the best person for the job – the candidate with the best CV and the right skill set.
They are sure that they ask the right questions, weigh the evidence and make a rational decision on whether the candidate is the right fit or not.
However, the scientific research suggests that we have a much less objective set of information into the mix. First of all, stereotypes we have about people of certain cultural backgrounds affect our unconscious thinking about who is the best candidate.
Studies, where researchers sent CVs to real job postings, showed that companies tend to prefer twice as many people with a typical white name, rather than people with an Asian or African name, even if the content of the CV was exactly the same.
On top of that managers tend to recruit and hire people that are similar to them.
That means that for example, a male-dominated company will be favoring a male candidate as he looks more in line with the typical employee of the company.
3. Evaluation and promotion bias
Another highly common type of bias in the workplace is the rater bias and it affects both evaluation and promotion processes.
As rater bias can be described a judgment error that occurs when an individual’s personal performance biases affect the evaluation of another.
Rater biases are a very common issue when it comes to performance and evaluation reviews.
They are a hazard of rating systems and cannot be truly eliminated, without organized action.
Personal and task acquaintance between rater and rate can impact the rating process resulting in overrating or underrating an employee.
A rating that does not reflect the reality can make employees feel underappreciated and reduce their overall productivity or on the other hand help perpetuate behaviors that don’t help the company move forward.
At the same time, we all are biased about what the “right leader” should look like. Checking the current CEO’s at Fortune 500, certain characteristics are common among most CEOs.
- 58% of Fortune’s 500 CEO’s are over 6 feet tall while only a 14,5% of American men stand 6’ or taller.
- Women occupy 5% of the Fortune 500 CEO positions, although they are the majority in the workforce.
4. Gender bias
Recruiters of both genders are more likely to rate the resumes of male candidates as more hierarchical, and more promotable than women – especially for positions that have to do with technology or STEM subjects in general.
In a related study, it was found that without any information about the candidate’s educational background and work experience, men are 50% more likely to be hired for a math-related task than women are.
One reason behind this, as mentioned before, is that stereotypical images of which gender is right for each job are deeply engraved in our unconscious minds. Another reason is that the bias towards similarity drives many recruiting and hiring decisions.
If a company is dominated by white men, a woman – and especially a black woman – has very few chances to get hired especially if the other candidates for the positions show more similarities with the recruiters.
Various studies and experiments have shown that both men and women judge women more harshly for expressing the same degree of passion and assertiveness:
5. Groupthink bias
Groupthink is the behavior of a group people, who, in order to ensure the group’s harmony and integrity, they restrain from thinking or acting controversially to the group’s typical behavior.
This often results in irrational decisions that can be dysfunctional even for the group itself.
It is very common when the members of a group are trying to avoid conflicts and want to reach a consensus when making a decision.
Since everyone wants to feel that they fit in, individuals avoid raising controversial issues or propose solutions that may not be expected by the rest of the group.
This so easily achieved consensus makes the members of the group feel a false sense that the right decision has been made.
At the same time, using Tajfel terms again, the “in-group” overrates its own abilities in decision-making and underrates the abilities of the “out-group” – or its opponents in simpler words.
Groupthink has various consequences, with its most serious being the dehumanizing actions against “outgroups” we have seen in history.
Nevertheless, groupthink can hurt the “ingroup” too. If groupthink takes over the workplace, you may start seeing behaviors like common responses to stress, loss of creativity because everyone is fixated on what is the norm around there, and ultimately to a lack of engagement from the workforce.
Another great example of groupthink is the financial crisis of 2008. An entire industry blindly trusted financial markets over economic fundamentals in decision-making.
Companies and various businesses benchmarked themselves with each other and found disaster like sheep, following one another to the end of a cliff.
6. Company policies bias
Company policies are most times biased toward a specific demographic that used to make the vast majority of the workforce.
Since most company policies were put in to place well before the 50s and 60s, they are usually biased towards men.
At that time, the normal expectations from the two genders were that men were requested from their jobs to be regularly traveling for business, and women were expected to stay home with the kids.
As Dawn Bovasso wrote in Fortune, “You can get $30 for takeout if you work late (because your wife isn’t there to cook you dinner)… but you can’t get $30 for a sitter (because your wife is at home with the kids).”
At most companies, non-household expenses like meals and hotel stays are covered, while expenses such babysitting or house sitting are not covered.
This issue is not realized if a female employee doesn’t bring it forward, and with so few women in leadership positions, the majority just has to stay silent.
The same logic is used in holidays and days off. Employees are expected to take vacation time for recreation and rest, but any child-related day-off is seen with suspicion and contempt.
Of course, these biases don’t only hurt women – in the long (or even short) run they also hurt men. With more and more people living as single parents, a policy that doesn’t take into account that a male-employee can be an active caretaker of the kids, this policy shuts down dads that want to evolve in their careers.
If for example, a dinner with the senior management is overly costly for a parent (in terms of how much the sitting service will cost them) they may decide to skip it and lose the opportunity to bond with their managers.
That means that when discussions for promotions will take place, they may not be among those they consider for promotion.
HOW TO FIGHT YOUR BIASES
Unconscious biases in the workplace and in life, in general, are not the end of the world. It is important to understand that everyone has such biases, including ourselves, but yet we are responsible to find ways to fight them and minimize their negative effects.
The good news is that despite the complex nature of the problem, mitigating the impact of unconscious bias simple matter of raising awareness and developing a more mindful approach to key decision-making times.
Let’s see three ways you can reduce the negative effects of biases in the workplace.
1. Be aware of your own blind spots
Just as you would avoid a dangerous blind spot when driving, you should in a similar way be aware of your own unconscious blind spots.
In doing so, you will recognize the effects they can have on others and you can take steps to combat unconscious bias in your workplace.
Especially if you are in a leadership position, the first step in this direction is to understand that you hold biases and acknowledge their impact on your decisions.
After that, deliberately slow down decision-making to make sure that you weigh all the evidence against or in favor of the decision.
Make sure that you take into account any cultural stereotypes you may have and when you finally reach a decision, examine all the reasons that led you there.
2. Be humble
During your evaluating your decisions make sure to ask and be receptive to the feedback from others.
It is easier for us to notice bias in others and therefore a good practice in the workplace is to constantly monitor each other for unconscious bias.
Be ready to reevaluate your decisions if it comes to your attention that you have acted on your biases.
Even if this feedback comes from people that are lower in the hierarchical scale, as a leader you should be humble and ready to consider if you have misjudged a situation.
3. Create anti-bias mechanisms inside your organization
The above concepts cannot truly make a difference if you don’t follow them meticulously as a responsible leader.
Therefore, it is important to create anti-bias mechanisms inside your organization to make sure that both you and any of your future replacements are being held responsible for reaching unbiased decisions.
It is important to implement changes inside your organization in order to:
- Educate workforce about unconscious bias
- Prevent going through with a biased decision.
Even companies like Google that they are known for having one of the most diverse workforces, understand that they can fall victims of unconscious biases and take measures to avoid this:
They have also implemented “People Analytics”, which uses a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to help leaders dig deep into the company’s cultural dynamics.
This has actually evolved to be a whole department that optimizes recruiting, developments, and advancement of Google employees.
Even if you don’t receive 50,000 CVs per week or employ 10,000 people like Google, you can certainly “steal” some of their ideas for your own HR practices.
Another issue you need to consider when setting up your anti-bias mechanisms within your organization is ensuring that one gender is not favorably placed in regard to the other in all steps of the hiring and performance review processes.
Since unconscious biases on who is typically more appropriate for each position are engraved in our brain from a young age, it is crucial to take measures against this tendency when reviewing candidates.
TO SUM UP
As a leader you may (and should) feel highly responsible for the successful development of your subordinates in the workplace.
Understanding that we all – including you – have unconscious biases that cloud our judgments and decision-making processes may make you feel anxious and unsure about your work.
While we may not be able to cure unconscious biases, with self-awareness, we can address it.
In this article, we went over various types of unconscious biases that are common in the workplace and suggested tips and methods you should consider if you want to be a successful leader that let and encourages their employees to thrive.
At the same time, note that relying on our biases can be sometimes a good thing as it helps us reach decisions sooner. Not all matters should be scrutinized to examine if you have acted on a bias, as this may result in processes moving forward to slow.
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