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Countering unconscious bias by encouraging constructive conflict

In Unconscious bias is a business issue, not just a diversity issue, I highlighted how often we are affected by unconscious biases in business… and the need to find ways to counter these biases.

 

As humans we are not as rational as we’d like to believe. We are biased more often than we think. We have unconscious biases for good reason.

 

It is our protective mechanism - we are able to spot potential threats quickly. It is efficient - there are times when quick decisions are required, such as emergencies. Biases based on past experiences are helpful guides.

 

Because they are so instinctive, we can’t counter unconscious biases just by knowing about them. The problem is not that we have unconscious biases, it is that our unconscious biases go untested or unchallenged when it’s important to do so.

 

Below are some conditions to build into our organisations to counter unconscious bias.

 

Individual effort

  • Accept that we are biased, that we can make assumptions and miss things (see Assumptions: The Silent Assassin).
  • Watch for our tendencies that override our ability to see more fully (eg. our need to be right, stubbornness, generalising and stereotyping).
  • Anticipate when biases may affect our decisions and actions so we can put reminders in place.
  • Regularly ask ourselves questions to challenge our thinking (eg. How do I know? What if I am missing something?).

 

While an important start, individual effort can only go so far, given the instinctive and unconscious nature of the biases.

 

Systems/Processes

  • Identify situations where biases may affect outcomes (eg. decisions that impact people, business decisions that impact short and long term outcomes, discussions involving new ideas).
  • Put in place mechanisms to remind ourselves and others of potential biases. Some organisations do so for recruitment (eg. quotas, blind shortlisting). Where else may biases play out and what mechanisms are needed?
  • Identify situations where we ignore or get around the mechanisms designed to counter biases.

 

Well-designed systems and processes can support individual efforts. However, it would be impossible to anticipate all the situations where we need to address biases. Our colleagues, especially people who think and see things differently, can help – but only in an environment where challenging is safe and allowed.

 

Culture of challenge

  • Build safety and confidence to challenge each other (up, down and with peers).
  • Involve your colleagues – especially those who are different – to help you counter your biases. Support the voices of the minority, as power imbalances can make it difficult for people to challenge (see Power dynamics beyond hierarchy and positional power)?
  • Encourage constructive conflict by inviting challenge from people who think differently.

 

A culture of challenge is needed as our individual effort and systems cannot pick up what people who are different to us are able to see. A harmonious, inclusive culture is not enough. We need an inclusive culture where different voices and challenges are heard. Without it, unconscious bias will remain - a path to stalling innovation, personal and business growth, disengagement and poor performance.

 

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