Why bosses must kick their unconscious bias habits

Imagine you turn up to my leadership-development consultancy one day for a job interview, and that morning you decide to wear a certain type of cologne or perfume. That scent you chose happens to be a favourite of someone with whom I’ve had a rocky relationship: it could be a family member I don’t get on with, it could be an ex-colleague I argued with frequently… that precise detail doesn’t matter. What matters is that, purely as a result of that scent reminding me of an irksome individual in my life, I give you a hard time in the interview. I’m chilly, aloof, overtly critical and pick holes, sending you away with a big bundle of low morale. You have no idea why I did that – and more importantly, I have no idea why I did it either. Welcome to the world of unconscious bias.

Like a shark moving silently beneath still waters, unconscious bias is a deadly trap for those who perpetuate it, every bit as much as it is those who fall prey to it. Perhaps when you turned up for that interview, your CV showed that you had all the required talents to successfully execute the project I was recruiting for… there must have been some reason why I picked up the phone, right? It was only when you walked in and I caught a waft of Eau de Whatever that I suddenly started regretting my decision to bring you in, leaving you free to take all those great skills you told me about in your email elsewhere. More fool me.

Unconscious bias manifests in all areas of life, and is very difficult to weed out, because it is practically invisible. As well as acting as an engine for negative discrimination, it has plenty of undesirable links to the positive form, too. You could be in an airport departure lounge about to board a plane, standing in a suit or a smart dress, and the flight crew bumps you up to business class purely because of your clothing. Meanwhile, a harangued and exhausted mother who is wearing whatever she had time to throw on to make the flight, and could probably use the upgrade, is ignored.

Why does stuff like this keep happening?

Jung at heart
According to a CIPD paper produced by a firm of chartered psychologists, our unconscious reactions occur below our level of consciousness, at a point well before 100 milliseconds – and typically about 250 milliseconds – before our conscious processes engage. Indeed, they can sometimes occur as quickly as 30 milliseconds. On an unconscious level, the paper notes, we process around 200,000 times more information each second than we do at a conscious level. Therefore, while we may not be aware of its actions at the time, our unconscious pretty much always has the upper hand over our conscious minds.

Never mind the idea of ‘snap’ judgments – the assessments we make unconsciously arrive before those fingers have even had time to snap.

CIPD’s paper notes that we are naturally hardwired to categorise people on the basis of factors such as age, weight, physical attractiveness, skin colour, gender and disability. But where unconscious bias really comes into play is in relation to “less visible” areas, such as accent, social background, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, education – even job title or organisational department… some of which could actually be gleaned from a simple glance at a CV, ensuring that unconscious bias works at fever pitch in the recruitment process before candidates even turn up for interviews.

In the words of Carl Jung, godfather of analytical psychiatry, “The unconscious is not concerned with moral injunctions.” Jung theorised that within the unconscious of each individual is a host of temporarily obscured thoughts, impressions and images that, despite being lost to us, continue to influence our conscious minds. What’s more, he added, we can never be sure whether the decisions we make and the conclusions we reach are based on conscious, or unconscious, thought patterns.

As the paper points out, this plays a very subtle kind of havoc with the workplace, because when we make decisions on who gets a job, who gets disciplined or promoted, or who we see as a confidant or suitable coachee, “we may be adding our own subliminal and emotional criteria to the decision. Criteria we may not even be aware of, and which may have no basis in facts about the individual.” As a result of that lack of awareness, we’d “almost certainly” deny that we harbour any unconscious bias at all.

Six-point shakeup
All of this is particularly concerning in the light of recent reports indicating that more overtly conscious biases are causing enough problems for key social groups. For example:

  • A study of 30,000 employees carried out by Lean In – Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s advocacy group for female representation in the workplace – found that women “are almost four times more likely than men to think they have fewer opportunities to advance because of their gender — and are twice as likely to think their gender will make it harder for them to advance in the future”. Lean In’s figures also show that women are almost three times more likely than men to say they have personally missed out on an assignment, promotion or raise because of their gender.
  • Latest research from the World Economic Forum (WEF) on what it calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a new phase of upheaval in the way we work brought about by emerging technologies such as 3D printing, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence – forecasts 5.1 million job losses through automation between now and 2020. Some 48% of those will affect females; therefore, as women comprise a smaller proportion of the workforce, their numbers will take the biggest overall hit – so it’s all the more urgent for women to make themselves indispensable. However, the WEF points out, across industry sectors, workers have named management bias as one of the two, biggest barriers that will hinder female integration into the workforce over the next five years (the other being work-life balance).
  • Results of a recent YouGov and Business in the Community poll of 25,000 workers, published last autumn, found that almost 60% of black employees were dissatisfied with their career progression, compared to just 30% of their white colleagues. More seriously, in the preceding 12 months, 30% of black and minority-ethnic staff had experienced cases of direct, personal harassment at work.
  • In July 2014, an Employers’ Network for Equality & Inclusion (ENEI) study found that two-thirds of Britons feel uncomfortable with talking to the disabled. Meanwhile more than a third believe that the disabled aren’t as productive as the able-bodied.

Given all those challenges, there has never been a more vital time to stop the rot. Here are some strategies that leaders can adopt to crash the bias program before it goes viral, ensuring that talent is allowed to flourish in whatever form it presents itself…

  1. Offer training to staff members that encourages them to acknowledge their bias
  2. Build employee awareness of the damaging ramifications that unconscious bias has for staff performance
  3. Re-frame the conversation so that the focus is on fair treatment and respect for others, and the true value of diversity to the organisation
  4. Implement effective programmes that increase diversity in the pipeline
  5. Make it clear to your recruiters that you are happy to see people from all walks of life, as long as they have the relevant abilities and experiences to make a difference in your organisation. Ensure they recruit from diverse applicant pools
  6. Ensure performance targets are objective and measurable, and that they can be applied in the same manner to all employees

Find out about the workplace areas where Inemmo Leadership Development Solutions can help deliver change

Image of gradient hazard signs to symbolise bias courtesy of Pixabay