I have always been fascinated by Unconscious Bias (UB) and how it impacts how we see the world.
“We don’t see the world as it is,we see it as we are”
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought it into sharp focus for me. Why are we subconsciously “Otherist”? Race, religion, gender, Liverpool v Manchester United, Yorkshire v Lancashire, Leave v Remain, Labour v Conservative. We see it reported daily in the media.
It has the potential to affect the outcome of every decision we make. Ensuring bias does not get in the way of us making good decisions helps create organisational cultures that make good decisions and thrive. In this article I want to share three things you can do right now to reduce the risk of UB undermining your decision making. This is especially important for businesses coming out of lock down and revisiting their business plans to ensure they not only survive the next few months but have a plan in place to grow. More than ever before, making good decisions will determine whether your business survives or fails and you must not let UB hijack you.
So where have those beliefs and biases come from? A combination of nurture and nature. UB is in our genetic code and served us really well when we lived in caves thousands of years ago and needed to make good decisions to avoid being eaten by the local sabre toothed tiger. We relied on our biases to quickly pick up signs of danger which would trigger our fight or flight response. Then there are biases we develop due to our environment, for example; who we spend time with, what we read or our life experiences. Here’s a link to a 3min video from The Royal Society called “Understanding Unconscious Bias” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVp9Z5k0dEE&t=26s
Think about the last time you walked down a street or in a park (I know it might have been a while!). If you see a group of young people in hoodies or a large dog with a muzzle, what immediately pops into your head? Do you challenge your reaction and give them benefit of the doubt, or do you give them a wide berth? Hand on heart I’d probably assume the worse. Humans do have a natural negativity bias and assume the worse rather than the best so they don’t get eaten by that sabre tooth tiger.
Now translate these situations into the workplace, if we let these biases negatively influence our decision making, then we’ll make bad decisions. This could range from choosing a sandwich for lunch to developing a strategy for the development of a new life saving medicine. Making a bad decision on a sandwich leads to a less than pleasing lunchtime experience. A bad decision on a strategy could result in someone not receiving their life saving drug, or having to lay off your workforce and close down your business.
Here are some common biases that we experience every day that have specific relevance to making business decisions, and if you Google UB then there are thousands.
- Stereotyping – assuming a person has certain qualities without having any real information. You’re about to go into an important business strategy meeting. Jo will be attending. They are younger than you, from Germany and head up the legal dept. You’ve never met them, but you’ve already built a picture of what they’ll be like, and whether you’ll get on with them or not. This could impact your openness to their input to the decision making process and a great idea they have may get discounted.
- Bandwagon effect – a form of group-think where your choice of option is led by the number of people in the room voting for it. Have you ever voted for an option that you felt wasn’t the best on the table, but felt pressured to follow the crowd?
- Choice- supportive bias – the tendency to feel more positive about the choice you made, despite its flaws. Have you ever found that once the strategy is in place, it’s really difficult to change it despite the compelling evidence that it’s not going to be delivered? How many times have we seen businesses go to the wall because executive teams have given it “just one more month and things will turn around”.
- Pro-innovation bias – where you tend to overplay the positives of your proposed way forward and underplay the negatives. Do you give the team a complete picture of the risks, or do you keep these in your back pocket until you’re asked?
- Anchoring bias – where you become over-reliant on the first piece of information you hear and tend to discount anything afterwards. If you hear something negative about an individual, do you continue to view them negatively despite all subsequent evidence being contrary to this? Mud sticks?
- Blindspot bias – where you can see cognitive biases in everyone around you, but not in yourself. Do you find it really easy to spot flaws in everyone else, but not in yourself?
Questions to ponder
- Which of the above do you recognise in yourself?
- Which of the above have you spotted in others?
If you said “None” to the first question then your bias is probably No.6! Everyone has them.
Did you find Question 2 easier to answer? Funny that, we’re much better at spotting biases in others than ourselves.
Ok, that’s all very interesting, but if we can’t avoid them, then how can we make sure they don’t get in the way of our decision making.
Here’s 3 things you can do in order of priority
1) Recognise your biases
The first step in all change processes is to be aware of what it is you’re trying to change. So make the unconscious conscious. UB is normal, so be aware of your own biases and how they may be influencing your decision making. Are you unconsciously not inviting certain people to that meeting because of a bias. For example, you avoid asking a specific person to review something because they’re always super critical despite them having a lot of expertise. In meetings do you tune out when a specific person starts to talk? Once you get to know your biases, then through practice you can quickly spot them before they cause trouble. “Project Implicit” was created by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington to develop hidden bias tests. Why not test yourself for a hidden bias, you can find a range of demo tests here – https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.
2) When a critical decision needs to be made, then make yourself “uncomfortably inclusive”
For that next meeting, take your invite list and expand it to include people you may not have previously engaged or thought they would not offer valuable insights or may be too challenging. You might start to sweat that this might derail the process, the decision may go against your preferred option, the decision gets delayed and you’ll miss your self imposed deadline, it’ll take more resources to do any additional work on the business case. This is good; these are all your biases shouting at you. Ignore them and do it anyway! What’s the worse thing that could happen?
3) Go first and create a culture of peer accountability
What I mean here is that its critical for your organisation to have a culture where people feel safe to admit they have biases and call each other out when a bias rears its head. Don’t wait for others to go first, have the courage to go first. Talk about UB openly, you can have fun with it and it will build a strong foundation for a high performing business. It can feel awkward calling out a bias and it’s important that it is about the behaviour and not the person.
A conversation structure that works really well for me is;
” Raff.. I’m noticing that whenever Sue starts to speak, you start checking your phone. I’m really concerned that you seem disengaged as your input to this critical decision is really important for us and if there is a problem I want to help where I can”… then shut up and let Raff respond.
So in summary, on the macro level, unchecked biases can lead to development of “otherist” behaviours and societies where individuals are judged upon unsubstantiated presumption resulting in hatred and division. On the micro level as we come out of lock down, allowing UB to get in the way of your decision making will undermine your businesses’ ability to survive longer term. In the article I’ve suggested three things you can do today that you don’t need permission to do which will help ensure all your decisions are good ones.
Change starts with you!
I’d love to hear your thoughts, please add them to the comments.