Overcoming hidden biases at work

Even the best leaders may unconsciously inhibit diversity
By Zabeen Hirji and Stephen Shea
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2014

You are open-minded. You are fair. You are unbiased — or so you’d like to think. Actually, research tells a dramatically different story. Despite our good intentions, we all have hidden biases. Even the best leaders may be unconsciously inhibiting diversity at their organizations and, as a result, limiting the success of their people and their business.

Hidden biases can be based on clearcut factors such as gender, race, ethnicity and age — or more subtle characteristics such as background, personality type and experiences. And most of the time we aren’t even aware that bias — either negative or preferential — exists.

Despite being unintentional, bias can have a detrimental effect on the overall success of a company by limiting potential.

There are consequences to hidden bias, according to a 2013 report published by EY and RBC, Outsmarting our Brains: Overcoming Hidden Biases to Harness Diversity’s True Potential. These biases can alter the criteria we use to assess potential candidates, whose opinions we give the most value to and even our willingness to interview a contact referred to us by a friend.

The human brain is hard-wired to make quick decisions that draw from a variety of assumptions and experiences without our conscious awareness, according to research by Harvard University professor Mahzarin Banaji in Cambridge, Mass. That’s an important realization for all of us.

Be honest

The first step to defeating hidden biases is to be honest with ourselves, according to Banaji. Having biases is human — the only shame is in making no effort to improve.

Each individual can benefit from becoming aware of his unconscious biases. Not just the ones that close our minds to possibilities but, equally, biases that create the desire to favour those with whom we share a connection — the same school, the same culture or race or the same social circle.

So what’s the impact of hidden bias in the workplace? Though a growing number of companies have embraced diversity and understand its business benefits, hidden biases are still shaping workplace decisions and actions. Hidden bias affects who we hire, how development and promotion decisions are made, compensation and performance evaluations.

Unconscious biases also have the potential to impact team or project assignments, and budget allocation decisions.

Establishing clearly defined criteria for evaluating interview candidates and setting parameters around the way people help “special” connections can help them avoid biased decisions.

Tough questions

Challenging hidden bias means asking the tough questions. Consider the following:

•Do I typically hire or choose to work with the same type of person or personality type?

•When I say an individual is not the right fit, what do I mean?

•Who do I take to important client or cross-team meetings?

•How do I identify high-potential candidates for opportunities, promotion and succession?

Asking these questions is just the beginning. Moving past biases takes a conscious effort. Leaders can start by asking colleagues for candid feedback, taking a 360-degree approach to seeking input.

Through open dialogue and introspection, leaders can challenge each other to identify their biases. Encouraging colleagues to listen to all voices equally and speaking out if you suspect someone’s contribution is being ignored or unfairly represented can also assist in overtaking our biases.

It goes without saying — this process takes courage and a willingness to consider potentially unwelcome aspects of our mental framework.

Once we recognize that everyone’s brains are wired to be biased, it becomes possible to identify the disconnection between intentions and actions.

Armed with awareness, intent and a sense of responsibility, leaders can take a more mindful approach to their interactions and decision-making and, above all, demonstrate behaviour worth following.

Leading by example can have a powerful impact and motivate peers and others to confront their own behaviours.

The real work begins after identifying biases. Reigning in old habits over the long-term requires a three-pronged effort:

Think differently: Make a conscious effort to seek out people with different backgrounds, experiences and capabilities to collaborate on teams and projects.

Learn differently: Seek out opportunities to immerse yourself and your team members in different environments outside everyone’s comfort zones.

Act differently: Take deliberate actions that disrupt your normal process and help prevent biases from shaping your decisions and behaviour.

With issues of diversity and inclusiveness top-of-mind for high-performing businesses in Canada, now is the time to encourage leaders at all types of organizations to think about their biases and show others we have the courage to address them.

These changes may seem difficult at first but they are important steps towards overcoming the hidden blind spots that limit human potential and hinder the best results in our businesses.

Zabeen Hirji is CHRO at Toronto-based RBC and Stephen Shea is managing partner, talent, at EY Canada in Toronto. For more information, visit www.rbc.com or www.ey.com.

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