Acting on intuition could mean your business is missing out on the benefits that difference can bring.

Written by Jody McDonald

Our instinctive perceptions and patterns of thought can cause us to treat others unfairly or preferentially, without any grounds. We’re often blind to this kind of prejudice: we can’t pinpoint the reasons that guide us or see the limitations of our ideas.

This is what’s known as unconscious bias.

We gravitate towards the familiar and make assumptions based on stereotypes, even when we agree that it’s important to be impartial and inclusive.

Implicit bias that subtly influences people’s ability to fairly assess and engage with others is a problem that businesses need to understand and tackle.

How does unconscious bias affect workplace culture and decisions?

Everyone is influenced by unconscious bias — even when they go against our stated values. Some associations and preferences are so deeply understood, they don’t have to be expressed to affect our behaviour and decisions day-to-day.

Without being aware that we’re doing it, our brain takes short-cuts that can lead to discrimination based on factors including gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, disability, appearance, social status, educational level, or profession. For example, assuming a younger worker will be less loyal.

Unconscious bias can result in your business:
  • overlooking talented people for recruitment, development and advancement
  • making poorer decisions due to homogenous teams and ‘group think’
  • not making the best use of your employees’ talent and knowledge
  • lacking the insight and empathy needed to cater to a changing customer base
  • developing a closed-off culture that contributes to disengagement and loneliness
  • becoming less creative, progressive and productive.
Dismantling unconscious bias is a business opportunity

Building a high-performing team requires having the right mix of contributors that can identify opportunities, lead and inspire others, apply critical thinking, and innovate.

A recent survey of employees at more than 1,700 companies in eight countries, found that teams with above-average diversity report a greater payoff from innovation. People with different experiences often see the same problem in different ways and come up with novel solutions.

A 2018 global study by consultancy McKinsey and Company showed that companies with more diversity in leadership roles are more profitable. Businesses with the most ethnically and culturally diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability. More women in the top ranks was also correlated with a stronger financial performance.

Diversity and inclusion are growth-drivers: prioritising a more diverse and inclusive workplace requires acknowledging and addressing unconscious bias.

Think unconscious bias isn’t an issue in your business?

Renowned psychologist, author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his analyses of decision-making, Daniel Kahneman, said, “We're blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We're not designed to know how little we know.”

It can be difficult to believe that bias is a problem worth tackling in your business — especially if it doesn’t affect you personally.

A survey by Boston Consulting Group about diversity involving more than 16,000 employees, found members of majority groups tend to underestimate the obstacles that diverse employees face.

They found that “…white heterosexual males, who tend to dominate the leadership ranks, were 13 percentage points more likely to say that the day-to-day experience and major decisions are free of bias.”

People want to believe they are in control of their thoughts, their judgement is sound, and they’re not inclined to display racism, sexism, or any other ‘ism’. Recognising that unconscious assumptions are likely affecting the validity of your team’s choices is the first hurdle—and it’s a big one.

How to overcome unconscious bias at work

Self-evaluations are probably not helpful! However, there are tools that help individuals assess their unconscious biases, like the Harvard Implicit Assessment Test.

Encouraging employees to identify and challenge their assumptions is essential — but should be supported by structural and practical changes that make more objective behaviours easier.

You might adopt new targets and processes related to how you recruit, allocate work, review performance, and decide who to promote or reward. For instance, your business could:
  • involve diverse employees in hiring and the design of policies and inclusion initiatives
  • craft recruitment strategies and branding to appeal to a broader range of candidates
  • re-shape screening and interview processes to enhance objectivity and/or emphasise diversity
  • provide conditions that support underrepresented groups, such as improved flexibility
  • re-think how you assign people to teams or who is included in meetings
  • regularly review your wages, hiring and promotion metrics to identify trends and gaps
  • share data behind hiring and advancement choices to improve transparency and benefit from feedback
  • include an independent person in promotion decisions, not just immediate managers.

Trusting your intuition feels right, but it could be costing you. Bring more deliberate thinking to how you treat recruits and colleagues, to avoid bias and improve your business.