March 26th, 2019 | Sterling

The Unconscious Bias: From Awareness to Action

Unconscious bias is as much a part of our personal lives as it is a part of our professional lives.  While eliminating our biases is impossible, learning how to control them is not.

In a recent webinar facilitated by Sterling, Wyle Baoween, CEO, HRx Technology, broke down the meaning of unconscious bias and other related terms in the current global context while showcasing its adverse effects on organizations and individuals. He also introduced participants to some tools that go a long way in interrupting unconscious bias.

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity is a combination of inherent and acquired diversity, the former covers the aspects of gender, age, race, disability, sexual orientation or socio-economic background; while the latter encompasses differences brought about by various experiences, functions, cultures, and language. The culmination of inherent and acquired diversity leads to diversity in thought. On the other hand, inclusion is a feeling that people experience when they are treated fairly, their differences are respected, and their voices are heard.

In a 2016 study by Juliet Bourke, titled, ‘How Diverse Teams Create Breakthrough Ideas and Make Smarter Decision’, the value of thought diversity when translated into numerical terms equates to a staggering 20% increase in innovation and a 30% reduction in risk! While these numbers in themselves speak volumes, the study goes into greater detail with figures revealing an unarguable business case for diversity and inclusion. The study show organizations with inclusive cultures are:

  • 2X times likely to meet or exceed financial targets,
  • 3X times likely to outperform competition, and,
  • 6X times likely to be innovative and agile!

This study follows a line of publications and expert insights, such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin’s December 2013 article for Harvard Business Review that talks about “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation”. The Scientific American published an article “How diversity Makes Us Smarter” wherein the writer explains that being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent, and harder working. In similar vein, a McKinsey & Company report proclaims gender diversity as a corporate performance driver.

How Our Brains Work

Consider this, our brain receives 11 million pieces of information at a time, while we can process 40!

Depending on the situation, our brain allocates different systems of thinking to process a given information. Head to the watch-on-demand webinar by clicking here to experience a live experiment that illustrates these systems in action.

Our Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases are a sum of the negative stereotypes we hold outside of our conscious awareness against a certain social group (such as women, LGBTQ, Asians, Muslims, engineers, doctors, etc.). These unconscious biases are shaped by our experience and environment, and can influence our perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors without conscious intention.

Unconscious Bias in our Workplace

Unconscious bias is often in contradiction to our values, and when this is transferred to the workplace, we hear it in the form of an unfair treatment in some form or the other. For example, we may experience that some job applicants are experiencing biased treatment, or that a manager is favoring certain people on the team, and so on.

A study by Stanford University’s gender research institute showed that men are more likely to be hired for a STEM related role over women. On the contrary, being aware of our biases and addressing them objectively can have better outcomes for organizations and people. Here’s how biases impact recruitment:

  • The Halo Effect (or confirmation bias): our tendency to accept information that confirms what we already believe. In such cases we tend to undervalue or dismiss facts altogether and go on to select only those facts that strengthen our pre-existing belief system.
  • In-Group Bias (or affinity bias): our tendency to like people we automatically relate to and favoring people that belong to our group. While hiring a candidate, we often hear the word “culture fit” or lack thereof, to dismiss the possibility of a hire that does not fulfill this bias.
  • Performance Bias: our tendency to judge members of the dominant group by their expected potential, while judging others by their proven accomplishments.

Tips and Tools to Mitigate Biases

If we examine each bias, we may believe that we do not relate to any of these biases. The fact is that we all have biases. Eliminating our biases is impossible, mitigating their impact is not. Here are some steps that you can take starting now:

Start with Yourself: be aware of your own biases and use tools to mitigate them by suspending judgement where ambiguity and pressure intensify the impact of our biases. Shore this up by constantly seeking feedback from people around us, as our biases are more visible to them. Here are some handy tips to start with yourself:

  • Watch out for when you are tired, stressed or under time pressure
  • Pay attention to decisions made with not enough information or no process
  • Ask for feedback from others (what should I keep doing, start doing and stop doing?)

Reach Beyond Yourself: help others mitigate their biases. Use the following 4Ds framework to reach out to others:

  1. Direction Action: Call out negative behavior. Let the person know the impact of their behavior.
  2. Distract: Interrupt the negative behavior. Find a way to distract from the situation.
  3. Delegate: If it is hard for you to speak out, get someone else to step up.
  4. Delay: If it is not possible for you to intervene, let it go and do something later.

Address Systems: Systematic biases are the inherent tendency of the procedures and practices of an institution to support specific outcomes. Organizations need to be on the constant lookout for systemic biases and consistently address them. A key deliverable is the review of HR processes.

Each step of the hiring cycle needs to be examined under the eye of diversity and inclusion, from recruitment to onboarding, from performance management to promotions, and from learning and development to succession planning; each step can translate to a champion of inclusivity.

The characteristics of biased processes are as follows:

  • Generate outcomes that lack diversity (analyze data)
  • Lack resources which increases pressure on people
  • Include decisions that need to be made quickly
  • Include decisions made by one person or a homogeneous group
  • Lack structure or have a high degree of ambiguity
  • Lack a feedback mechanism

To counter these biases organizations can follow various tips that are outlined in this webinar, click now to watch-on-demand.

Do you enjoy reading about diversity at the workplace? Click here to read how Sterling follows a time-honored tradition of celebrating diversity and inclusion in our workplace and with our community.

Sterling is not a law firm. This publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out this information. We encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.