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Unconscious bias is a business issue, not just a diversity issue

You may have heard of unconscious bias in the context of diversity and inclusion in organisations. Some of you may have done training in it. It’s an important concept to understand in developing diverse and inclusive organisations.

 

But actually, it is a critically important concept to understand and apply for making good business decisions, developing innovative solutions, solving problems, lifting performance, developing people, collaborating effectively… and more.

 

How often have you experienced, seen or heard of biases showing up in:

 

  • Decision making: Decisions being skewed by the loudest person in the room – possibly because they sound more convincing, or because they have more ‘power’ (not just positional – see Power dynamics beyond hierarchy and positional power)
  • Innovation efforts: Innovation efforts stalling because of group think or the decision maker doesn’t believe in the idea – possibly because of the person presenting the idea, bias for certainty over uncertainty, or because of untested assumptions about the idea (see Assumptions: the Silent Assassin).
  • Problem solving: End up fixing symptoms rather than the root causes – possibly because of bias towards doing ‘something’ and feel in control, or because we are blinded by complexity.
  • Performance: People under-performing because they sense that the manager doesn’t believe in them – possibly because the manager filters out their strengths or only sees what confirms their beliefs about the person.
  • Development: People being ‘boxed in’ to doing certain tasks, even though they are good at other tasks – possibly because of the perception they are good at the assigned task, they don’t get an opportunity to demonstrate other abilities or others miss it when they do demonstrate it.
  • Collaboration: Not speaking openly to certain people in fear of their reactions – possibly because we have experienced negative reactions in the past or because we have heard about them from others.

 

These are just a few examples of how our biases can affect our everyday actions and interactions. We like to think we are rational but we are often biased by irrational or incomplete thinking without even knowing it. The reality is, it’s impossible not to have biases. Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock in Beyond Bias highlights this point and the need for bias-countering strategies.

 

Biases cannot be addressed by individual efforts alone. Bias-countering requires groups of people challenging each other with diverse perspectives and the ability to hear and leverage the different perspectives. So in a way, diversity and unconscious bias have a chicken and egg problem. Unconscious bias prevents us from building diverse teams. Without diverse teams where differences are leveraged, we cannot effectively counter biases.

 

I will explore bias countering strategies in my next article. Till then, I’d love to hear your diverse perspectives!

 

Related articles:

Stop blaming individuals for poor performance

Can ‘harmony’ be damaging your team and organisation?

Stop focusing on diversity as a fairness issue

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