How to Overcome Unconscious Bias at Work

Humans, like any other animal, have instincts.  These have evolved over millennia to help us survive.  For example, have you heard of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex?  It helps us to make a snap judgement about whether to engage with danger or flee from it.  It was useful in situations where we were once hunted by predators, and continues to serve us in sketchier environments in the modern world.

However, it is an immediately useless ability in the typical workplace.  In most scenarios, we must take time to gather insightful information and different perspectives.  We then have to use this data effectively to establish root causes of problems, and generate logical judgements to inform decisions.  Unfortunately, it is not easy to override evolution.  We still experience rapid first impressions of situations or people we encounter, which can skew our workplace decisions and render them inaccurate or ineffective.

As much as you may believe that you do not make snap judgements, there are many compelling psychological reasons why everyone has unconscious biases.  As children, we learn about the world by categorising the things we perceive with our senses, such as colours.  We continue using this technique for more complex concepts as adults.  Our brains have evolved to assimilate an incredible amount of information, but we undoubtedly have to create shortcuts to access it.  We rely on our memory, ie things we have experienced and common knowledge, to make sense of something new that appears in front of us.  In essence, stereotyping is a mechanism that our brains are hard-wired to do.

There are many ways in which these snap judgements represent themselves at work.  Let’s hypothesise an example in recruitment.  Imagine you’re conducting an interview, and your candidate is describing a time when she/he organized her/his approach to a project from the outset.  As you are listening along, you begin to think “that’s what I would do in that situation too.”  In this example, the interviewer is far more likely to rate the candidate favourably as a result of what’s called the mirror image bias.

We get self-esteem from relating to other people who are similar to us, because this reaffirms our own social identities.  We are more likely to trust these people as a result, but it also means we will recruit like-minded individuals and create teams that lack diversity.  A lack of variety in perspectives is one of the main reasons why organisations get lost behind their competitors, and cannot overcome the constantly changing landscape of their industries.

So how do we overcome unconscious bias?  Well, becoming more aware of the different types of bias is the first step towards noticing our own personal snap judgements, eg the halo/horns effect, expectation bias and the contrast effect, to name a few.

However, becoming more aware of what could happen isn’t nearly enough.  By its very definition, unconscious bias refers to feelings and thoughts that are beyond our conscious control.  In talent management, we have to implement rigorous, systematic behavioural assessment processes to ensure we combat these biases.  Line managers, technical experts and interviewers alike need to be trained to take verbatim notes, only on what they see and hear, and then match this evidence against objective marking criteria, rather than their own ‘gut feeling.’

a&dc provide Assessor Skills training to ground talent management judgements in facts and evidence, rather than subtle opinion.  Get in touch, and we’ll give you further advice on how to free your organisation from the shackles of unconscious bias.

Author: Jordon Jones

Does ‘Mother HR’ Know Best? – Challenging HR’s Role in Shaping Leadership and Management Development

For the past 20 years I’ve been a specialist in designing and facilitating a wide range of different leadership and management development interventions.  During that time, fads and favourites have come and gone.  I’ve done my best to stay ahead of the game, but always believing that at the end of the day I carry the ultimate responsibility for enabling great people development, informed by my practice and study as well as my previous experience as a department head.

And then only yesterday I read an article by Tesco Bank’s CEO, Benny Higgins, who declares that “it’s not the job of HR to develop people”.  Instead, he suggests that “HR is there is support our process and make sure those leaders, and those individuals, have the right level of support”.  In other words, he believes that good leaders who care about enabling employees to succeed should take ownership of development.  He notes that HR “should be there to support and aid them, but not own it”.

But doesn’t ‘Mother HR’ know best?  The words of a song from Disney’s film of 2010, ‘Tangled’ come to mind.  Did you see it?  For sure not as well known as “Frozen,” but it re-tells the story of Rapunzel.  As her wicked mother combs Rapunzel’s hair, she sings…

“Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It’s a scary world out there.
Mother knows best
One way or another
Something will go wrong, I swear”

(from Tangled, Disney Corporation, 2010)

So, imagine we cede the primary responsibility for leadership and management development to leaders and the business.  What could or will go wrong?  How can we, as HR practitioners, guard against that?  At a&dc, we use the model of ‘Business Impact’ to achieve ‘Greatest Certainty.’  This six level framework measures impact and return on investment of learning and development interventions.

Surely this provides the ‘Holy Grail’ for any development intervention? It must be HR’s legitimate and unique role to ensure that from the very moment that we begin to scope anything that aims to improve the quality of people management, we are the ones to ask questions related to what success looks like and identify ways in which we will know this has worked.

In 2014, McKinsey Quarterly reported that US companies spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development and yet only 7% of senior managers polled by a UK business school think that their companies develop global leaders effectively.  One of the report’s 4 common mistakes is failing to measure results; providing no evidence to quantify the value of their investment.  This is exactly why we developed the Greatest Certainty tool.  After all, if HR doesn’t ensure this measurement happens, as the song says “one way or another, something will go wrong I swear.” 

Read more about Business Impact and Greatest Certainty here.

Author: Karen West