How to Overcome Unconscious Bias at Work

Published March 18, 2016

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

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