HOW UNCONSCIOUS BIAS HOLDS LEADERS BACK
Unconscious bias can be subtle and sometimes even hard to spot unless leaders question and explore their own decision-making processes. For example when a leader picks a team member to work on a prestigious assignment with a client, their default place may be to select someone who is familiar to them, have rapport with and are unquestioning of why they feel ‘comfortable’ with a particular person. Leaders may not be aware that their decision is based on their ‘affinity bias’ (hiring and promoting in our own image) where like attracts like. This can be seen throughout the whole employee cycle and often goes undetected where leaders make decisions based on their unconscious preferences. A study carried out by business psychologists Pearn Kandola*, looking at the associations between senior and junior positions, and men and women: found a bias towards associating men with senior jobs and women with junior ones. This bias was as true of the women in the sample as of the men*.
Leaders can often make decisions based on beliefs both positive and negative that they already hold albeit unconsciously. Imagine if a leader held a view that women are nurturers. How would they manage a strong woman who reported to them? Will she be perceived as aggressive and asked to tone down her ambitions? Would her eventual frustration in her role reinforce the leaders’ stereotype of her that she is after all ‘aggressive’? Unless leaders become aware of their own confirmation bias and begin to recognise how unconscious bias is running the show.
The impact of this is that leaders may not be using all the talent that is available in their teams in the most optimum ways, which can lead to people being disengaged with what they are doing, lacking in motivation, which in turn affects business productivity.
Unconscious bias is not just about the individual leaders in the organisation. Unconscious organisational patterns, or “norms” of behaviours, exert an enormous influence over organizational decisions, choices, and behaviours. At the organizational level unconscious bias tends to perpetuate the status quo and old patterns and values, and which can justify why things are the way they are. For example talent management systems may not appear to be overtly discriminatory, however research shows that they are vulnerable to interpretation and advantage a narrow view of talent. Some talent frameworks, particularly in leadership, commonly include masculine stereotypes when characterising senior leaders, meaning that masculine norms are embedded in the system. So, whatever bias exists at the top of an organisation is institutionalized by talent management systems and cascaded down to lower levels. This means that even when minority groups comply with explicit and implicit career development pathways, they are likely to experience disparate outcomes. Research shows that while women and individuals from different cultures do ‘all the right things’ to get promoted, including gaining experience, being networked and blurring work/life boundaries, they are still likely to advance to a lower level than their white male counterparts and have slower pay growth.
WHERE DO LEADERS NEED TO FOCUS?
To begin to embed diversity and create inclusivity, leaders need to begin to understand their unconscious biases, both within the context of personal and organisational perspective and how this impacts in the way they engage, manage and interactions with others. Along with this, leaders need to articulate to others on how D&I in central to their businesses, an important part of managing and growing talent - a benefit for everyone irrespective of where they are in the organisation. This requires leaders to act, champion authentically diversity issues and to challenge cultural ‘norm’ of this is how we do things around here thus creating different realities in multinational organizations. For multinational organisations to make continuous progress and embed diversity and inclusion - raising awareness of unconscious bias and its impact on behaviour and decisions is a key step. However, awareness in itself is inadequate unless it is supported and backed up by intentional plans that are practical and self-sustaining and are underpinned by high quality policies and practices.
WHAT DO LEADERS NEED TO DO TO ADDRESS THIS?
- Do a diagnostic to get a snapshot of where the organisation is in relation to D&I, its readiness and climate for embracing an intervention of this type.
- Create a short and long term vision of where the organisation wants to be and how it will measure its success.
- Decide on the appropriate level of intervention – what is the right solution mix of policies, procedures, workshops, coaching etc.
- Train and support work on raising awareness on unconscious bias with practical solutions that can be integrated back into the workplace.
- Offer coaching to leaders as a part of their development in unconscious bias.
- Create different communication channels that expose hidden bias, with shared stories and a platform for discussing unconscious bias in informal settings.
- Establish D&I champions to act as role models for sustainability of the interventions.
- Examine the leadership framework to ensure D&I is an integral part of leadership development.
- Examine policies, practices and processes that can lead to organisational unconscious bias.
- Set up milestones to analyse the D&I interventions and the impact this has had on the organisation.
The above steps are the beginning of a longer journey towards both making the workplace fairer and inclusive whilst at the same time, making better business.
· Kandola, Binna. The value of Differences: Eliminating Bias in Organisations