Checking Your Blind Spot: Ways to Find and Fix Unconscious Bias

Ways to find and fix unconscious bias

"You cannot trace how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a trace of irritation in your spouse’s voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid a threat on the road before you became consciously aware of it. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our minds."

From the introduction to Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

The Brain and Bias

We’re not bad, we’re human.

It may be time to reconsider the bias we hold against bias, itself. Rooted in the human brain’s automatic processing systems, unconscious decision-making has played an important role in the survival and evolution of species.

Candice Bosteels, founder and managing director at IdentiCy explains, “The fundamental fight or flight response is actually an example of unconscious bias. It is based on what feels safe to us in a certain situation. Our experiences, our preferences, our education, our upbringing all contribute to the model of the world we have, and it makes us who we are. That is not necessarily a bad thing--it becomes problematic when we start treating groups of people as less favorable, or we make bad decisions based on that model.”

Hayley Barnard is co-founder and managing director at MIX Diversity Developers. She explains, “Our biases are essentially thinking shortcuts. We rely on our unconscious processing ability to handle about 99 percent of the information we process.”

Nobel prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman studied the two different processing systems the brain uses to make decisions. System 1 thinking, where bias comes from, is intuitive, automatic, and effortless. System 2 thinking is deliberate, analytical, and rational. It requires energy. For example, system 1 thinking makes it possible to hit the brakes the instant another car swerves into our lane; system 2 allows us to navigate a new route when our usual path is blocked.

Barnard says, “Our brains take the liberty of using shortcuts and patterns to draw conclusions for us, and they do this by using the data already stored in our internal harddrives: our past experiences, cultural experiences, the media, the way we were parented. On the whole that is really helpful, because it allows us to make extremely quick assessments of situations.”

Spotting Our Biases

Taking a look at bias from different perspectives.

"We tend to remember and pay more attention to information that confirms our preexisting beliefs – a.k.a. 'confirmation bias.' We also tend to give more weight to information that is presented to us earlier rather than later – a.k.a. 'primacy effect.' Very important too is the 'fundamental attribution error': the belief that, while our own actions can be explained by circumstances (i.e., I yelled at a colleague because I had a stressful day), others' behaviors are explained by their personalities and dispositions (i.e., he yelled at a colleague because he is a bully)."

Esther Quintero, Albert Shanker Institute

The problem with that immediate, automatic system 1 thinking is in allowing the brain’s shortcuts to short-change the people or situations we assess. Bosteels says, “We all say that we use data for our decision making, but a lot of our decisions are actually driven by unconscious bias, by how we consider something to be safe, acceptable to us.”

We resist the unfamiliar.

For example, multiple studies show that job candidates with foreign-sounding names have a significant disadvantage. The BBC reported on conducting such a test in 2017. “Inside Out London sent CVs from two candidates, "Adam" and "Mohamed", who had identical skills and experience, in response to 100 job opportunities. Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohamed was offered four. Although the results were based on a small sample size, they tally with the findings of previous academic studies.”

One study out of Ryerson University and the University of Toronto came to a similar conclusion. According to a report published by the World Economic Forum in May, 2017, “As part of a different study from 2011, researchers sent out almost 13,000 fake résumés to over 3,000 job postings. The academics went back to this data at the start of 2017 and found that people with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani-sounding names were 28% less likely to get invited to an interview than the fictitious candidates with English-sounding names, even when their qualifications were the same.”

Processes can reflect or reinforce bias.

“I know of organizations where people who came back from a career break or maternity leave, and even younger talent who wanted to take a sabbatical, were met with a level of bias during the review process,” Bosteels says.

A job posting is a process that can be inadvertently biased. Barnard cites the famous Hewlett Packard report “that shows that women will apply for a job if they meet 100% of the criteria but men will apply if they meet about 60% of the criteria in the job description.” For Barnard, “organizations publishing a long job description over pages and pages is not going to attract women to the job.”

In another example of how job descriptions can discourage certain applicants, Barnard describes an IT leader at a global company who was trying to improve gender diversity on his team. He couldn’t find enough women for the type of roles he was looking for, and wondered “‘are we putting people off before they even get to us?’” The executive surveyed candidates and people in the business, asking for the most important criteria when it comes to a job. For the women, commute ranked first followed by an inclusive workplace. For the men, being stimulated and challenged was most important.

“When he looked at the job description and job adverts, he found ‘international travel required’ and thought, ‘that’s a problem, if your number one criteria is that you work in a convenient location with a good commute.’” Barnard says, “That’s what I mean about bias in the process and the way of doing recruitment. It might not be that the women aren’t out there, it may be that they take one look at what’s on offer and go ‘that doesn’t suit me.’”

It’s ugly.

John Ryan, Practice leader for Power, Renewable Energy & Green Technology for TRANSEARCH International once worked with a firm that routinely conducted a survey around employment issues. He recalls an African American banker’s story: “He shared that he was at a baseball game with colleagues, when his beeper went off. ‘My boss looked over and asked me if a big drug deal was going down. I calmly remarked that my wife was on bed rest and had had a difficult pregnancy, and might be going into labor. It was uncomfortable.’”

Ryan also recalls a female executive who shared that she had always struggled with the reaction she’d get when she would talk as aggressively as her male peers. “Her boss would look at her like she had crossed a line. She was viewed through a different lens. She said, ‘I was once called a bitch in a meeting, and that shocked me.’”Unconscious Bias

It’s in front of us.

Even as we try to resist bias, dated perceptions can be all around us. For example, Joanna Goncalves, national director for marketing and client experience at Boyden recalls an experience with a media outlet that unwittingly reinforced biased perceptions. “We penned an article for a top national media outlet with a lens on ‘what is top-of-mind for CEOs today’ (the subject matter being digital transformation). The media outlet ran with the piece online first and selected a stock photo to accompany the article. To our dismay, the image selected with a CEO / leadership headline was that of a white male, further endorsing the bias around us.” Goncalves flagged the problem, and it was corrected. She says, “Within 30 minutes, a less conventional image of a CEO replaced the original, this time featuring a professional woman.”

We think we can know groups.

It’s easy to think we know people in a cohort. Alicia Hasell is the US managing partner at Boyden. She recalls conducting a CEO search for a client with a large cohort of Millennial employees. “I found that peoples’ perceptions of Millennials differ greatly, from the positive: ‘They value and get the most from technology’ to the negative: ‘They are entitled, only want to work 20 hours a week, and are always looking at their phones.’ So, in the course of my search, I cannot ask simply, ‘How do you work with Millennials?’ I have to first understand the lens through which this person sees that population, and form my questions from there.”

No one is immune.

Bosteels, who has a passion fordiversity, tells a story on herself. She recalls “sitting with other senior managers through an unconscious bias training. At the time I was leading the women’s network, and I had to recognize that I also have bias.”

Bosteels explains the silver lining to the uncomfortable moment of self-awareness. “The fun thing was, afterward we could be relaxed and open with each other – ‘hey, was that actually objective thinking?’ We were able, in a non-judgmental way, to deal with it. I thought I was one step ahead of everyone else in terms of not being biased, but after I went through the training I realized: I’m not there yet. And I continuously keep reminding myself of that.”

Corrective Maneuvers

If no one is immune to bias, what can we do? The first step is to recognize it. For Bosteels, “It’s important that we move away from the label that who is biased is bad, and who is not biased is good. We’re all biased, and as soon as you start putting labels on people, bias becomes something nasty, and nasty things we typically want to keep under the surface. But we need to get it into the open, because as soon as you have people, you have bias.”

Some specific tools include:

Unconscious BiasPersonal Self Awareness

“One of the tools we teach people is called substitution. We ask people to substitute one person for another and ask themselves would I still feel the same way? Would I still respond the same way? Would I still have cast aside that resume?” Barnard says, “One anthropologist called it learning to do a bit of internal spying, to check yourself and think: why do I feel that way about someone?”

Another check on bias is to correct it through experience. Barnard invites clients to analyze their informal networks. “I get them to list two or three people in the workplace and outside of the workplace who they would go to if they had an issue to discuss. When they categorize those people in terms of education, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity and so on, what most people see is that their unofficial advisory board very much look like them, and probably therefore think like them. So we can each challenge ourselves to seek out the perspective of someone different from ourselves, even if that just means grabbing a coffee with someone you don’t ordinarily talk to in the office.”

Adriana Prates at Dasein Executive Search based in Brazil says, “The question of unconscious bias has increasingly troubled me over the past few years; for example, in meetings when describing the profile for a certain position. There was even one time that during a coaching meeting with an executive, I noticed that he was making decisions based on his own unconscious bias. It was when I decided to do a course. I realized that if I managed to better identify my own unconscious bias, I could contribute more to my clients and even speak to them of my own experiences. One of the school’s characteristics is that class composition is as diverse as possible, in terms of aspects such as gender, social class, race, beliefs, values, age, and profession.” She says, “One of the modules I undertook with my 53 classmates was called The Walk of Privileges and as we live in a country of extreme inequality, on finishing the dynamic, we were astounded to see where each of us were on this path. Whilst working on these feelings after the experience, it showed us how painful and easy it is to negatively impact a person’s life with choices based on bias.”

Unconscious BiasLeadership Trials

Nick Hutchinson of Quinton Anthony describes a marketing executive at a global engineering firm who observed that the firm’s team leaders were all of a similar age, sex, education and experience, and questioned how the organization could think differently moving forward if the same type of people are always at the helm? “A decision from the executive team was made to re-shuffle and diversify the various sector team leaders in the region,” Hutchinson says. “By trialing new team leaders over a specified period of time, the business gained new technical insights, greater energy and input into the sector teams. This process also provided some relief to burned out team leaders. Those who had never been a team leader before—but who had different cultural, geographic and industry experience—were given a trial opportunity to lead their teams with the support of those around them, including the executive team.”

Unconscious BiasBlended Teams

Bosteels recommends organizations build blended teams to increase awareness of different perspectives. “Even though conceptually, people see a lot of benefit to creating blended teams, in reality people feel more comfortable teaming up with alike people. Nevertheless alike people may not be challenging themselves and each other. In blended teams, the composition of the group may increase awareness around unconscious bias.”

Another take on blended teams is panel interviewing. Bosteels explains, “Managers often want to recruit who they see in the mirror in the morning. It makes them comfortable because that’s what they know.” She recalls a client that had success implementing panel interviewing. “Recruiting people with diverse profiles, from different industries, backgrounds, nationalities, was complemented by a more diverse interview panel which took some of the bias out of the process.”

Unconscious BiasMeasure to change

Personal measurements might include the Implicit Association Test from Harvard’s “Project Implicit.” It is a simple online exercise that measures associations between concepts, stereotypes, and evaluations. “The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.”

In reference to a UK measure published in the 2017 Institute of Directors report, Barnard says “one of the things that jumped out at me is when surveyed about the biggest barrier to getting more women in the board room, men tended to say there were not enough qualified women.” However, she says “35% of women on boards have masters degrees, compared to only 19% of the men, so there’s a different criteria. Also, more than 50% of male board appointments went to people who already knew at least one person on the board. Only 19% of women board appointments went to someone who was already on the board. The old boys network seems to be alive and kicking in those scenarios."

Many countries have elected to use data to motivate corrective improvements in how bias plays out in the workplace. Barnard says, “that’s why we’ve seen legislation in the UK like the gender pay gap reporting.” I do think a starting point is checking the data.

Unconscious BiasWatch your triggers

The theories of ego depletion and decision fatigue show how different forms of mental tiredness can lead to increased System 1 (automatic and thereby bias-prone) decision making. Barnard explains “Our cognitive resources are limited, and as the day goes on they decline. So when we’re tired or hungry, our brains rely more on that unconscious, fast processing, which studies have shown is more prone to bias.”

So to reduce the chances of bias breaking through into behavior, Barnard recommends having a snack or taking a break. “Within eight minutes of drinking a sugary drink, bias levels fall,” she says. “When you look into this from a search perspective, how often do we spend the whole day analyzing resumes or interviewing candidates, and then we make the decision at the end of the day when we’re tired and hungry? The best practice from my perspective would be to not make the decision at the end of the day but to leave it until the following morning.”

Unconscious BiasOngoing Training

Mickey Matthews, International Chairman at Stanton Chase acknowledges how the mind jumps to conclusions. “I’ve certainly had people come into my office when I was expecting one gender, solely based on a name, and the opposite gender entered,” for example. “But those are the obvious examples; in reality, we don’t know what we don’t know – this is inherent in the idea of unconscious bias.”

Experts in the field agree that unconscious bias training is never a matter of one and done. Matthews says, “Twice a year all of our consultants meet, and the Diversity and Inclusion leaders organize trainings for our team to identify and overcome unconscious bias. These trainings include tests on making the individual aware of his or her biases. Identifying and recognizing these biases is the first step to overcoming them in our daily work, and we see this as vital to the success of Stanton Chase and our clients.

Unconscious BiasCheck your Culture and Manage Change

Bosteels tells of a personal experience coming up against culture. “I was brought in as a more diverse talent into an organization. My wiring was less technical, and more commercial and business-minded, and I was hired into a very senior role in a beautiful organization filled with great technical experts. I was used to an open environment, so at the start I asked a lot of questions, wanting to learn and understand. However, what was normal to me was making people uncomfortable in the new organization. It took me over a month to establish relationships and help people understand that I wasn’t criticizing—I wanted to learn. But for people who weren’t used to the “questioning” approach, it might be frightening, and as a newcomer it was not necessarily welcoming.”

That first-hand experience led Bosteels to be a firm believer in change management. “If companies want to change the culture of an organization by hiring a diverse workforce, they have to include change management, otherwise that diverse workforce might not be successful and there might be retention issues in the end.”

Unconscious BiasLeverage technology

From initial screening in recruiting, real-life simulations in assessment, and “blind,” data-based performance review, advances in technology can help employers limit the impact of unconscious bias in their workplaces. Bosteels says, “I’ve been reflecting on the role of technology, because if you think about recruitment with AI and the prescreening of CVs, I strongly believe you can take a lot of the bias out.” However, Bosteels warns, “Trough machine learning, the robot picks up the feedback humans give and integrate it for the future. I’m wondering how long before the robots start to build in bias?”

Unconscious BiasResist

Project Implicit is a non-profit organization that seeks educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the Internet. Project Implicit recommends a strategy of not giving implicit biases the chance to operate. One example is “blinding” oneself from knowing an individual’s irrelevant demographic details when making a decision about them. Another example is learning to compensate for implicit preferences. “For example, if you have an implicit preference for young people you can try to be friendlier toward elderly people.” The project also recommends “people consider what gets into their minds in the first place. For example, this could mean going out of your way to watch television programs and movies that portray women and minority group members in positive or counter-stereotypical ways.”

The role of search

“One thing search professionals can do is arm themselves with the data around profitability and diverse executive boards and leadership teams,” Barnard says. “There are significant research that will help clients understand the relationship between diversity in management and both innovation and profitability.”

Search consultants also have an opportunity to challenge what clients think they need. Barnard explains, “If you think about the average search, clients often say we’re in manufacturing and we’re looking for someone who has x years experience in manufacturing, with this level of leadership in manufacturing. But it’s when you have a group of people from mixed industries that you’re more likely to get greater, more profitable innovation; more than if you only have people who’ve ever worked in manufacturing, for example.”

Search firms often lead by example. Tyler & Company’s Dennis J. Kain says, “For over 20 years, we have had a policy of including diversity candidates on every slate, for every engagement. At our executive search firm, diversity candidates are encouraged by motivating the research staff in identifying and placing them.”

Unconscious BiasFor example, Kain says, “Health system leadership teams should reflect the population of the service area, which requires the hiring team to recruit within the changing demographics. The truth is that unconscious bias is a given. New generations can reduce unconscious bias by being more culturally aware of changes in our society.”

Search consultants are uniquely positioned to show clients that they do not have to trade top qualifications for diversity. Mpho Nkeli, Director at Search Partners International / AltoPartners, says “When getting a brief for an executive placement or board position that only has race or gender criteria listed, I actively engage the client to help them focus on first defining the actual skills that are required for the specific position, and then have a discussion about race and gender afterwards. And, more often than not, discussions like this lead to the skill requirement changing and an emphasis placed on those requirements. After an understanding of the exact skills that are required, we then have the discussion about any additional criteria, such as gender or racial. I would rather find someone who will add value to my clients’ businesses than just be a front or someone who will tick boxes. The value we add as search consultants is the ability to have these conversations and be strategic advisors to our clients.”

Occasionally, even well-intentioned clients struggle to take the unfamiliar path. Barnard observes, “At moments like that, I think it’s useful for a search firm to be that trusted advisor.”

The Way Forward

"The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high."

Daniel Kahneman, from Thinking, Fast and Slow

Ultimately, Barnard says, “We need to make the unconscious conscious.” She says, for example “jot down a list of why this candidate and not these other people, and that too can reduce the chance of bias affecting the process. Same with rushing—we fall into using the fast, effortless thinking, so even taking a few more seconds to evaluate someone can reduce bias.”

Bosteels says, “More and more companies see a more diverse workforce as a key driver in their strategy, and other-minded people are brought in to accelerate the strategy companies are trying to achieve.” For example, she says, “I’ve seen companies bring diverse people to move from a product approach to a solution approach. Other companies do it because they want to change their culture to become more entrepreneurial.”

Bosteels says “Companies can start to recruit a more diverse workforce to help change their company culture, but often it is forgotten how, when people enter an organization with a well-established company culture they’re faced with bias. It’s not just by bringing in a diverse workforce that a company is going to succeed in their transformation. Change management work is needed to achieve a more inclusive environment,” she says.

“It is not by putting healthy fish in troubled water that you improve the environment. You need to clean the water so everyone can live together.” She adds, “Otherwise, the investment companies put in to hiring talent may not pay off.”

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