The spectre of unconscious bias has ruled decision-making for too long, imperceptibly eating away at companies’ attempts to introduce diversity, says Angela Peacock.
Do we have any racist, sexist, ageist homophobes in the room, or is it just me? Let’s not get all coy about this – the reality is that we are all riddled with bias.
Pause for a moment and take a look at the people around you. If you don’t know them – and even if you do – as you look at them you will already be making assumptions about who they are, the sort of job they do, the car they drive, how hard they work… and guess what? They are making the very same assumptions about you, both consciously and unconsciously.
To begin to understand unconscious bias, we need to be willing to explore our hidden beliefs. Beliefs buried so deep in our minds that we may go to our graves and never become aware of them. But they affect our choices, and could be the reason that the logical approaches to diversity have not had the impact we had hoped for.
At the current rate of progress, in the majority of Fortune and FTSE companies it won’t be my daughter that stands the same chance as my son of becoming the next CEO or managing partner; it’s not my granddaughter either – it’s actually my great-granddaughter. And in Europe and North America, that only applies to those who are Caucasian and heterosexual. Anything different in either regard could well move the dial back yet another generation, and that can’t sit well with any of us in the 21st century!
We know that nobody goes to work every day to deliberately keep women out of the senior ranks in our organisations, and yet it happens. It’s time to recognise the impact of our hidden unconscious biases on the decisions that we make every day, and the impacts that they have on our talent, our performance and our customers.
We are conditioned to talk about how great diversity is for business– unfortunately that’s not always the case. We can bring the most diverse group of people to the table – black, white, young, old, man, woman, introvert, extrovert – but here’s the reality: If what is going on around them is toxic they won’t perform, they won’t give their best and we will wear slowly away at their self-esteem. Some will check out their brains, often years before they check out their bodies. There can be an unseen, unheard, imperceptible drip of micro-behaviours that, like acid rain, go unnoticed… until the nose falls off the statue.
You may be wondering if I am making a case to undermine pure diversity. Absolutely not! And, indeed, statistics show that positive intentions have led to progress – it’s the rate of that progress that we should no longer tolerate.
Conscious intent to create diverse organisations by improving processes or asking workforces to appreciate difference has not made the inroads that we expected and needed. We have to cause a change in our beliefs, to alter our behaviour significantly enough to impact our decisions, before that change can happen.
What we do know works is a culture of inclusion – the space in which anyone can excel, in which anyone can be fantastic. Leaders who are prepared to jump inside their brains, look at what their fears are and address what their unconscious has been telling them for years are the leaders that create more inclusive workplaces.
Bringing together a group of people that think differently, have different life experiences, and see through different lenses, in an environment where everyone can be heard, will deliver the most robust decisions that stand the test of time.
Imagine your brain as a continuum – at one end it holds biases that you are absolutely aware of and recognise. Think about areas that you yourself may have a bias against – tattoos, bikers, shaved heads maybe? We all know the things that we have a personal problem with.
At the other end of the spectrum are unconscious biases, which are sometimes buried deep within our psyche. The problem here is that while we may not know that they are there, they are constantly whispering at us in our every waking moment and in every decision that we make.
The fantastic piece of engineering that is the human brain has stood us in phenomenal stead. It’s got us to where we are today, it’s kept us safe and out of danger – except now there’s a bit of a problem. At any one time your brain has 11 million pieces of information flying at it.
Imagine taking a walk through Times Square: everything you can see, everything you can hear, every smell, every hoarding that you can read, every single facial feature on another human being, all register in your brain as individual pieces of information.
And in reality, our brains can consciously process no more than 40 things at a time – the rest go flying straight into our unconscious mind.
Despite what we might lead ourselves to believe, our conscious bias is not the problem. For every conscious bias that we know that we have, there is a plethora – hundreds, possibly thousands – of unconscious, ridiculous, illogical biases that are constantly pushing their way unseen into our conscious mind.
Bias isn’t just about the stereotypical groups that we imagine when we start to talk about diversity. It’s absolutely everywhere. Take, for example, the difference between introvert and extrovert behaviour.
Research points to the fact that an introvert brain in this century, with all its distractions, will think more deeply and focus more thoroughly on an issue than an extrovert brain will.
And yet, we are much more likely to promote the extrovert into leadership positions than we are the introvert.
Think about every meeting you attend. The person who’s speaking loudest, shoots from the hip, uses all their – and everyone else’s – available airtime, makes decisions quickly, that’s the person that gets noticed, the one who gets promoted.
The person in the corner who is processing the information at several levels deeper than everyone else, who is likely to come up with a far better risk-assessed and broader decision for your business, is very likely to be excluded rather than included.
How much might overlooking that brainpower ultimately cost your business?
Pause again and think about the leaders in your own business. What does your cultural unconscious bias dictate that a leader might or might not look like, sound like or behave like?
We need to turn on its head everything that we think works. The meetings when we expect instant decisions are, at best, not robust enough. At worst, they don’t work at all when applied to other cultures such as those in Asia.
Unconscious bias impacts every part of our organisation – the selection of our talent, our assessment centres, right through to how we pitch for business with our clients. It impacts who we assume has the power, and who we overlook.
To be truly authentic 21st century leaders, we need to be able to look at every human being, and then look again and think about what we could know, what we should know, and not rely on just what we do know.
We cannot afford to walk past talent in our own organisations just because it doesn’t dress like us, speak like us and walk like us.
Take a moment to tune into your assumptions and biases – listen to the whispers – who are they counting in? Who are they discounting?
And is it just me who could admit to at some level being a sexist, ageist and racist homophobe?