Breaking bias (Executive Series)

Why learning how the brain works can help people overcome systemic bias
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/06/2016

Breaking bias (Executive Series)

Why learning how the brain works can help people overcome systemic bias

By Liz Bernier

We all have biases that are so automatic, so ingrained in our thinking that we’re not even aware of them — it’s evolutionary. 

The good news? This bias is possible to overcome — but not without understanding why the brain works the way it does, according to Carlos Davidovich, vice-president of executive coaching at Optimum Talent in Toronto. 

Davidovich, who worked as a medical doctor for many years, now works as an executive coach in a new area known as neuromanagement. Neuromanagement is about understanding how the brain works and connecting that knowledge with organizations and management strategies to optimize success.

2 systems

Understanding the brain starts with understanding there are two basic systems in the brain. This is a very simple way to define how the brain works and, therefore, how people behave, said Davidovich at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. 

“System 1 is fast at making decisions; system 2 is slow. System 1, what it does is association of ideas; 2 is serial,” he said. 

System 1 is implicit, effortless, difficult to control or modify, and has no self-awareness; system 2 is effortful, explicit, reflective and deliberately controlled, said Davidovich. 

“It looks like the system 2 is always running behind the system 1 because it is faster to make decisions. But it doesn’t mean those decisions are always right,” he said. 

“One way to see the brain is that through evolution, we didn’t replace the brain — nature was adding one (system) over the others.” 

First, there is the reptilian brain — the oldest system — responsible for pure instincts, said Davidovich.

“The second one we share with big apes and horses — we call it the emotional brain.”

That emotional brain is also known as the limbic system, he said. Then, there is the neocortex.

“And this is the only part that makes us human beings: All the learning functions… (are) because of the neocortex,” said Davidovich. 

The reptilian brain, plus the emotional brain, is called system 1. It’s totally unconscious, it’s something we’ve learned for millions of years, he said. And the rational brain is system 2.

Where is bias found? 

The system 1-system 2 dichotomy is an oversimplification, but for the purposes of understanding how bias works, it’s very helpful, said Davidovich. 

System 1 is responsible for all of our biases and system 2 is the “lazy fact checker,” he said.  

“We mix up all these unconscious inputs with what we call intuition,” he said. “We are bombarded by so many inputs.

“Cognitive biases or ‘mindbugs’ — unconscious inference — is ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason and make decisions.” 

People think they see the world as it is; that is not true. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, said Davidovich. 

“All of us have our own lens and there’s a filter based on our culture, our education, our influences in the environment, and we build those biases,” he said. “Those biases can have a very important purpose so I’m not saying that they’re always wrong.”

Humans have at least 150 biases that can be defined by name. This is normal — it’s the way people connect to each other, said Davidovich. 

Do we need biases?

When it comes to the question of whether we need biases, the answer is pretty simple: Of course we do.  

“But what for? Why do we create so many biases in our unconscious mind? Self-protection, mainly. Better safe than sorry. And for many, many years, they were very useful. They were useful to act and react fast enough to survive,” he said. 

“It takes 100 milliseconds for the brain to decide if a person I don’t know is a foe or friend.”

And people don’t even know they are doing it — humans are much better at detecting and criticizing biased thinking and decision-making in others than in themselves.

“The dynamic principle of existence is survival — and with all respect to the audience, we are very primitive. The moment we feel fear, we run to the reptilian brain, and we start being defensive,” he said. “Pleasure attracts and pain repels — it’s as simple as this.”

It feels good to be right because it activates the reward circuitry in the brain. It feels bad to be wrong because, in that case, what is activated in the brain is the centre of pain, said Davidovich. 

“We make judgments and decisions based on what feels right.” 

So biases are involved in any situation — conversations, driving, walking, shopping — and they are always there. People’s brains are wired to promote fast, efficient information processing. Biases are a kind of cognitive shorthand — a fast passage to safety.

In that way, they can be useful, said Davidovich. But there are also many negative consequences to bias in today’s world.

Negative consequences 

Generally, bias is so unconscious, people can’t see it, he said. 

One example is that of the New York Philharmonic trying blind auditions to correct a massive gender imbalance, he said. 

“The first try failed — do you know why? They were able to hear that (the women) were wearing high heels,” said Davidovich. 

They tried it again, accommodating for that, and now the gender distribution is 50-50. 

“(The imbalance) was not about technical capacity — it was about bias and sexism.”

Negative consequences of bias can include hiring or promoting the wrong candidate, missing the right candidate, investing in less innovative ideas, missing business opportunities or making snap decisions, he said. 

So, how do we stop bias?

“We need to work in a gap — the gap that all of us have between our intentions and our ideals, and our behaviours and actions,” he said. 

“We live in a world of high complexity, ambiguity, problem volatility. Default solutions don’t work anymore — the more biased we are, the more mistakes we will make in our decisions.

“What we need that will train our brain is diversity of thoughts.”

It’s not about just “trying to be better” — people need to actually interact with diversity, with diverse opinions and diverse thought, said Davidovich. 

“I need to send a lot of messages to my unconscious brain that being in a diverse environment is absolutely fine,” he said. “Approach potential solutions from different perspectives or different opinions.

“When we are always thinking the same way, the probability of a wrong outcome is very high.”

People need to activate their system 2 brain instead of simply, unconsciously relying on system 1. 

“Are we able to erase all of this information from our system 1? The answer is, no way. Don’t even try. What we can do is to revise more often those decisions that are not exactly right — bring in the system 2. Work slowly, we need to think, we need to analyze,” he said. “That is the way to start changing the system 1.

“And that means increasing or raising the level of awareness in the way I talk, in the way I connect with people. Can I do it by myself? Yes and no. It’s better to help each other on this — it’s very difficult to do it by yourself.”

People need to accept that they can be wrong and, for many of us, that’s not easy, he said. 

“I don’t want to feel that I’m wrong,” he said. “But if I’m aware of this, and I accept I can be wrong, then I can start walking the new path.”


Neuromanagement: The missing link
HR has a vital new resource to build a better workplace

By Trish Maguire

Thanks to advancements in science and technology, Carlos Davidovich tells us talent managers and leaders have a new science and practice they can be inspired by. It seems the essential missing link into understanding what really drives our motivation, satisfaction and performance has indeed been found — to be exact, neuromanagement or neuroscience for some people.

Neuromanagement originated in the clinical environment and is a new resource to help talent managers and leaders accelerate their ability to tap into and cultivate people’s talents far more purposefully. 

This new science has the potential to bring a very different meaning to talent development.  

According to Davidovich, neuromanagement enables leaders to gain new understandings about how people approach and respond to work and life environments.  

Imagine the advantages in knowing more about how our brains handle complexity, ambiguity, creativity and innovation; how we can manage stress more effectively, understand more clearly how we can enhance the way we connect and communicate with each other. The very prospect of applying this knowledge can only result in more effective workplaces.
 
Apparently, through the neuromanagement research, traditional theories have not only been contradicted but actually turned upside down. 

The research has proved that people’s brains in fact don’t decline once they hit their early 20s. 

Would you be surprised to learn our brains can actually change and continue to grow throughout the rest of our lives? Note the emphasis is on the word “can.” 

So the question for any organization is no longer whether or not people can change or grow. It’s really about the need to build working conditions that are in every respect favourable for people to choose to change and continue to grow. This sounds like real empowerment.  

What an amazing opportunity these new findings propose for all talent managers and leaders. 

This knowledge provides every reason for organizations to learn how to encourage, not discourage, people to connect, engage, grow and choose to be the best they can be.  

The unexpected opportunity this new science presents for leaders is in establishing how their talent management strategies can become even more extensive and drive the creation of highly productive work environments where people are motivated to maximize their potential. 

Unlike the traditional behavioural approaches used in talent management strategies, neuromanagement places even greater emphasis on the importance of cognitive science.  

Instead of focusing only on what and how people do things, neuromanagement helps determine why people do what they are doing and, as a result, helps to figure out how this can be accomplished even more effectively. 

Being able to understand why people respond favourably or not to work situations, problems and, more importantly, change can only help in the creation, design and implementation of even more relevant and effective HR learning initiatives and programs.  

There are examples of progressive organizations that have for some time been investing in designing highly participative work spaces that are more spacious with natural light and fresh interior decorating touches that encourage people to connect, share and collaborate.  

With the advantage of neuromanagement, the reason for building an even better workplace for tomorrow’s talented workforce seems to be inevitable.

Once and for all, HR has a vital new resource and the opportunity to play a key role in building better workplaces, better managers, better leaders and better working conditions — which can only lead to even better workplaces. That’s an exciting four-fold win-win.  

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in human resources and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.

The accountable lizard
Accountability comes in fits, starts

By Michael Clark

As with previous SCN neuroscience presentations, Carlos Davidovich’s energetic session did not bring anything new to resolving an issue — in this case “bad” bias. While knowing that my quick-moving lizard brain is overriding my slow-moving executive brain is gee-whiz interesting, it does not help me overcome “bad” bias. 

Until neuroscience produces “Unbiazon,” a magic pause-and-reconsider pill, it remains a shiny ball that only justifies the work of organizational effectiveness, but doesn’t help it.

The various means to overcome bias Davidovich brought out  at the Strategic Capability Network session — accepting you can be wrong, recognizing there are two sides to everything, challenging first impressions, justifying your decisions, thinking twice — are not news to anyone in HR, anyone in a yoga class or anyone on their granddad’s knee. 

The real challenge is how to ensure these common-sense means become common expectations at organizations. 

Like everything else, the means to drive a behaviour is to reward that behaviour. 

Until such time as “thinking twice” is part of an employee’s pay cheque — an accountability — doing so will come in fits and starts, done by some and not others according to whim or their sense of responsibility. 

Once that foundation accountability is in place, its corollary is for managers to create environments of openness and honesty in which all teams members understand and “feel” their advice and opinion are welcome — even when they contradict prevailing “wisdom,” even when the emperor has no clothes. 

The solicitation of that advice by the manager, and the giving of that advice by the team member, also become accountabilities. This ensures that at least the diversity of thinking within the team is part of those decisions important enough to warrant “thinking twice.”

Determining which decisions are “important” decisions is ultimately up to the judgment and discretion of the individual with the authority to make the decision. 

Helpful step
Despite efforts toward instance specificity (hiring, firing, business development, strategic change) there is no master checklist. A helpful step, though, would be to use a decision-making framework that is a) replicable and scalable and b) explicitly includes time and effort made exploring risk and its likelihood and severity.

Am I the only one who wishes someone would gather up all the work that is being done in neuroscience — including positive psychology, behavioural economics, hedonic psychology, ego depletion, decision fatigue, thinking intentionality and, yes, bias — and bring it all together into a handbook for overcoming how our own physicality — including our lizard brains — gets in our own way?

Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company. Forrest is an organizational transformation firm with over 25 years experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations. 


Do you believe in ghosts?

By Karen Gorsline

Biases are not things people like to talk about. For some, bias has a very negative connotation. For others, bias has no place in decision-making because it lacks rational foundation. Yet, we are haunted by these “ghosts,” our biases, and they inform almost every action we take. Like Scrooge in the Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, we can think of bias in terms of the past, present and future.

Past
People’s brains are wired to respond to information in different ways. A portion of the brain functions based on instincts. Some of these are ingrained and some are “learned” at such a basic level people may not be aware of the source — they just “know.” 

Some of these biases played a large part in survival of the species when quick response was needed to determine whether fight or flight was required. 

Other biases, based on experience, form a type of cognitive shorthand and are related to daily decisions and behaviours — habits. American theorist Buckminster Fuller said, “Ninety-nine per cent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” 
While there are many positive aspects to instincts and biases, there are also negatives. We may respond to threats that do not exist or maintain habits that are no longer helpful or a good use of our time.

Present
Another portion of the brain is focused on reason. It uses explicit information and processes information in a serial and slower way. This is sometimes described as rational thinking or conscious decision-making. Complex situations and decisions require a more thoughtful, less rushed approach. 

However, there are flaws to this approach. Biases often seep into what a person takes as rational information without challenge or investigation. People are more aware of bias in others than themselves and thus are less likely to challenge themselves.

Finally, we don’t know what we don’t know and may not take the time to explore broadly enough. Examples of negative consequences of this complacency in thinking are racism, stereotyping and acting or deciding based on inaccurate or insufficient information resulting in poor outcomes. 

Future
The good news is people can think and be self-aware. They can understand that bias in the form of quick action, instinct and habit are appropriate responses. They can also challenge first impressions. They can broaden information inputs by deliberately introducing uncertainty, exploring new situations, tapping into group intellect, evaluating options and decisions, and not justifying them. 

Biases are a fact of life. When biases overwhelm thinking and decisions in any aspect of living and decision-making, there will likely be consequences. 

Humans are blessed with self-awareness and the ability to observe, learn, remember and reason. We need to learn to surface our “ghosts” and be more aware of their impacts on us. We also need to communicate with each other,  and share experiences, knowledge and, yes, even biases to create a better understanding of other experiences and realities. 

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

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