Unconscious Bias and Business Impact: an interview with enei’s Dan Robertson

26th October 2015

This is a guest article from Dan Robertson, Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion. In this article, Dan looks at how to tackle Unconscious Bias, moving us from theory to action.

The nature of human bias

Psychologists refer to Unconscious Biases as our unintentional people preferences that result from the processes of socialisation and social categorisation.

Research has demonstrated that when the unconscious brain sees two things occurring together – for example, women and child caring roles – it begins to wire these associations together neurally. Constant exposure to images and stories of women in child caring roles via the media, home situations, personal encounters and work environments reinforce these neuro-connections resulting in what is often referred to as soft-wired bias.

A useful analogy is that of ‘software’ whereby our biases are created and written down during our lifetime. Like software there is capability within the brain to change (plasticity), which means we may also be able to re-wire our implicit people preferences.

Our Unconscious Biases are likely to be activated whenever we encounter people who are similar to us and people who are different to us. Importantly we know that our biases affect our perceptions of competence and thus our hiring and talent management decisions within a workplace context.

A 2012 study by the Policy Exchange found ingrained levels of age based bias in the UK labour market, whilst a 2009 Department for Work and Pensions study found significant levels of ethnic bias amongst UK employers.

These studies and others into areas such as appearance and sexual orientation indicate high levels of unconscious biases and the extent to which our unintentional people preferences play out in recruitment and people management decisions. Previous research tells us that we need to be mindful of certain types of biases:

A common form of Unconscious Bias is affinity bias. This type of bias impacts talent processes in organisational decision-making including in the following ways:

  1. How we recruit: Managers are more likely to hire people who look similar or with sounding names to them.
  2. Work allocation: Managers are more likely to assign key client projects to individuals within their teams who they have an unconscious affinity with?
  3. Performance: Managers are more likely spend time informally discussing contributions to the team and will focus on development and future work plans. For these where there is little affinity managers are more likely to question past performance. The conversation will be less friendly and even hostile at times.

The need for a new (inclusive) style of leadership

For many businesses the way to address some of the impact of unconscious bias on talent management process is to work with leaders to consider their own thinking processes and behaviour patterns. Inclusive leadership works within this new approach.

The principles of Inclusive Leadership

As stressed in a 2012 paper on Inclusive Leadership by the professional services company Deloitte, there is an urgent need to develop business leaders who can let go of the iconic image of leader as hero, and to embrace the principles of inclusive leadership. Catalyst, the global not-for-profit organisation, provides a use framework for leader by identifying four key qualities of an inclusive leader:

  1. Empowerment: Inclusive leaders enable diverse talent and teams to grow by encouraging them to solve problems. Moving away from the leader as hero figure.
  2. Courage: Inclusive leaders stand up for what they believe is right. Thus they challenge existing norms and call out both conscious and unconscious biases when they see or experience them.
  3. Humility: An inclusive leader is someone who creates an organisational environment where it’s OK for them and others to admit their mistakes. They are curious about difference and actively seek out different points of view to increase innovation and leverage diverse skills to meet wider business goals.
  4. Accountability: A key aspect of inclusive leadership is holding oneself and others to account.

This involves questioning hiring managers and reviewing differences in performance management scores between different groups and questioning why.

In our work at enei we stress the need for individual and system level actions. From a practical perspective the 5 things that leaders can do to promote inclusivity include:

  1. Schedule meeting at times to ensure maximum participation.
  2. When on a conference call or in a meeting, ensure you invite everyone to contribute to the discussion. Listen for who is dominating.
  3. Watch who attends team social events and look for individuals or groups of individuals who simply don’t attend or make excuses. Ask why.
  4. Take a few risks by allocating a challenging piece of work to someone whose potential you haven’t previously recognised.
  5. Have a coffee with someone who is very different from you (age, seniority, gender, background etc)?Ask for their ideas or view on a subject without giving yours first!

At the system or organizational level we would recommend:

  1. Create opportunities for team reflection: it helps to prevent Groupthink and challenges existing biases.
  2. Introduce Blind decision-making: In recruitment, remove information such as names and universities from application processes.
  3. Find some good role models in the business. E.g. those working flexible hours. Use these stories as challenges to traditional viewpoints.
  4. Talk to key stakeholders: Challenge your recruitment agencies and head-hunters when they say, the (diverse) talent is just not out there’ .
  5. Develop sponsorship programmes and hold individuals to account on their inclusion targets: Holding individuals to account increases vigilance.

Implementing these actions begins to create new thinking processes, leadership behaviour patterns and decision-making processes.

As the global village continues to integrate and connect inclusive leadership will become the new norm. In this context we move away from the why to the how and now.

Dan Robertson is the Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion. He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Connect to Dan on LinkedIn, on Twitter at @dan_robertson1 or on email: dan.robertson@enei.org.uk

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