Biases are learnt associations that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, and influence our behaviour. We pick them up from our environment, such as family members, teachers and media. According to psychologists[i], we are particularly sensitive to these messages in our early childhood years as we simply absorb the world around us without questioning it[ii]. This explains why experiments[iii] with kindergarten aged children show that they already ‘know’ what colour of people are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Therefore our responsibility is enormous. We need to ensure that the next generations know that all people deserve respect and equal and fair treatment from everyone.
Why do we have these general points of view? We actually need generalised thoughts. Our brain receives approximately 11 million bits of information every moment, yet it is capable of processing only about 40 of these[iv]. Therefore, our brain distorts, i.e. emphasises or diminishes, deletes or completely ignores nearly all the information it receives.
Let’s say that you participate in a team meeting. There is a finance, a marketing and a technical manager present, and someone who is responsible for a big advertising campaign you are running. Depending on how each person’s brain is going to process the information presented, it is literally possible that they each hear something different. They may pick up all the information their brain deems relevant for them, and those data points which support their assumptions and thoughts. It has always been good practice to confirm understanding, get alignment about the conclusions, action points, persons in charge and deadlines in writing after each meeting, but now that we know our brain will react this way, we can also understand why it is so important.
In order to manage all the information we receive, we need categories which help us decide how to react to people and situations. We create these categories based on prior experience. From babyhood (or perhaps even from before our birth) we absorb information like a sponge and categorise this information. Imagine these categories like tiny drawers in your brain e.g. you may have a ‘drawer’ where you have the information about men, another one for women. When you meet a transgender person for the first time, you may not have a ‘drawer’ and you may not know how to react, or what to say. As you meet more and more transgender people, the amount of information you accumulate in this drawer will help you in your future encounters. If you collect positive experiences, see role models, etc. about certain groups of people, it is more likely that you’ll be able to interact with them in an appropriate and positive way.
Different sources discuss different biases. One issue with the early unconscious bias programs was that they covered too many of these and our brain was not able to process and remember them all. As we would like the reader to remember their biases and make a commitment to positive behavioural change, let’s focus on the following four biases that have perhaps the most impact on our every-day work activities.
- Conformity Bias: The tendency to take cues for proper behaviour from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment.
Example: In business meetings where decisions need to be made, if the majority are people who are more similar to each other (e.g. men in most MNCs’, Japanese in most Japanese MNCs’, Europeans in most European MNCs’ senior leadership teams) they are more likely to have similar opinions. Due to the conformity bias the minority often may not speak up or may even pretend to agree with the majority’s decision even if they disagree.
- Affinity Bias: Favouring others that are just like us.
Example: Due to affinity bias it may happen that we only listen to or put more value on someone’s opinion whom we consider (unconsciously or consciously) more similar to ourselves. Therefore, we are missing out on or even discredit diverse points of views.
- Recency Bias: A tendency to put too much weight on the most recent events.
Example: Managers may rate employees based on their most recent performance without proper consideration of the overall picture. It can happen that the manager gives a higher ranking or better performance evaluation to someone who did really well in the last two months although they didn’t perform well prior to then, rather than to someone who had been a great performer for most of the year, but didn’t do as well during the last project, which is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
- Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs/hypotheses.
Example: If you have a bias that a certain group of people does not perform well in the workplace and you have a team member from this group, you will look for evidence to support this belief instead of being fully open minded and consider that person’s actual performance.
Managing unconscious biases
Unconscious biases can lead to unfair outcomes in the employee lifecycle, including recruitment, promotions, assignments of high visibility projects, development opportunities, P&L responsibility, compensation and more. Most leaders would genuinely believe they are assigning and promoting employees based on merit, but the confirmation, recency and affinity biases often sway our perceptions, interpretations and actions.
Here are a few steps you can take for managing these biases.
- Use neutral language in job descriptions.
- Delete names and photos from CVs.
- Use a diverse panel for interviewing.
- Question your decision: Is it based on merit or am I ‘cloning’ myself?
- Encourage high performers who are less likely to nominate themselves.
- Seek out the opinion of a diverse group of people for promotion decisions.
Talent review/ performance management:
- Don’t fall into the trap of ‘recency bias’, keep notes during the year and have regular one-to-one feedback discussions.
- Be aware that some cultures and women are more likely to give themselves lower ratings because of their modesty and humility.
- Don’t mistake humility for a lack of confidence or competence.
High visibility projects, development opportunities, P&L responsibilities:
- Gather other opinions before you make your decision. You may think a decision is based on merit but try and reflect to see if a bias was involved.
- Don’t assume certain people (e.g. women, shy people) would not want to travel to certain places locations alone. Try asking them and you may be surprised.
- Don’t automatically ‘protect’ others (e.g. pregnant women, young mothers) by not giving them too much responsibility. Ask them regularly how they are doing but don’t let your bias negatively impact their development and career progression.
The cultural bias
Cultural biases are less talked about during unconscious bias programs, but have a significant impact on people who are working with different nationalities, be it in a multicultural office or virtually across borders.
We can only perceive people and events based on what we know. In the case of cultural bias – we need to understand our own culture and learn about other cultures’ norms and ways of doing things, otherwise there is a good chance we misperceive and potentially misjudge people as well as situations.
An example for this is promotion opportunities for Asian leaders in Western multinational companies. The leadership expectations are often formed based on Western behaviour patterns, and would include: speaking up, accountability, being transparent. However, in an Asian setting, employees may interpret these things differently. For example, hierarchy may play a bigger role as to who is going to speak up and when, the group may want to take responsibility for good and/ or bad performance as opposed to the individual, and being transparent, i.e. saying everything directly, can be tricky for those who want to keep the group harmony or save face (to protect someone’s reputation, dignity).
Misperceptions and misinterpretations can lead to broken careers and lost business deals. Therefore, all people working internationally should learn about general cultural differences, such as direct and indirect communication, different approaches to hierarchy, comfort with silence in communication, time perception etc., and build cultural awareness and competence this way. The next step is then to learn about specific cultures. The more you know, the more likely it is that you are able to communicate and collaborate effectively across cultures.
In summary, we know we need to simplify all the information we receive and we need to categorise people and events. Thus our aim should not be to try to rid ourselves of our biases, but to identify the few which may cause us to be unfair, prejudiced and/ or judgemental whether at work or in life in general.
The process we need to go through is the following:
Inclusion has gained momentum in 2020, although it has been around for a while. This was perhaps due to factors such as the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Whatever the reasons, most organisations now recognise that building an inclusive culture is key to their success in the long-term.
In an inclusive culture all employees feel respected and valued for who they are and feel that they are given a fair chance for development and success.
We should think about inclusion on all levels, i.e. organisational, team and individual.
In an inclusive organisation
- The leadership team set the tone and “walk the talk” on inclusivity. The top leadership (including the Board of Directors) should aim to be diverse and inclusive
- The organisational culture is built on an inclusive mindset of all employees
- The organisation’s policies, practices and infrastructure reflect the culture and create an inclusive framework
In an inclusive team you
- Accept and respect each person for their authentic self
- Encourage collaboration between different points of view
- Have a sense of belonging and feel safe
An inclusive person is
- Non-judgmental – reflects on and examines their own assumptions and behaviour
- Is curious and keeps learning about all types of diverse people
- Open and respectful to diverse ideas and opinions
- Listens and asks questions
Unconscious biases are the biggest barriers to inclusion. Because of their very nature, the problem is that you cannot address them until you become aware of them. Therefore, the first step is always greater self-awareness. You need to reflect on your own perspectives and attitude. You can only stay or become an inclusive person and leader if you are genuinely open to and respectful of different people, views, ideas, perspectives, etc. If you are, then the table below suggests a number of simple steps to establish more inclusive behavioural habits.
|Be a role model – An inclusive leader – Here are a few pointers how:
• Mix with different people, search out and talk to people you don’t typically interact with. Try to understand their needs, thinking and behaviour.
• Be curious. Ask questions in general. Ask a question before you share your own opinion.
• Ask ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions – and give time for people to answer.
• Actively listen to people, listen to their words and pay attention to their body language.
• When you have to make a decision about recruitment, promotion, assigning someone to an important project, ask yourself: Would I make the same decision if this person was a different gender, nationality, had a different sexual orientation, etc. Or even better: try to imagine someone else’s perspective. For example, you are sitting in a meeting: Imagine, if I were a man/ woman, if I were British/ Singaporean/ Canadian/ Chinese, what would I say? How much would I contribute?
• Watch yourself in stressful situations, such as being overworked, tired or hungry because we then tend to rely more on our unconscious assumptions and behaviours.
• Find an ‘inclusion buddy’ to provide feedback on how inclusive you are.
• Make small changes in your environment and encourage others to do the same. This can lead to a great ripple effect and ultimately make a real difference in your team or even organisational culture.
By this point I hope we all have identified at least a couple of action points we should take to better manage our biases. I encourage the reader to stop and reflect for a moment: What are the two or three steps you will take to further your inclusion journey?