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Unconscious bias refers to blind spots we’re unaware of that impact our decisions—about people, ideas, events, and even products.
The eight statements below offer a way to evaluate how active unconscious bias might be inside your organization.
Rate your current team, department or company on a scale of 1 to 5.
1 = completely false
2 = somewhat false
3 = somewhat true/somewhat false
4 = somewhat true
5 = completely true
If your total score was:
Under 24 It is likely that unconscious bias is prevalent in your organization. Bias can
wreak havoc on recruiting and retention efforts and stymie diversity.
24 – 32 You’re typical of most organizations. Though you’re doing some good things,
you can make major improvements. Failing to address unconscious bias can have
33 – 37 That’s fantastic. It’s likely that your organization has implemented and
benefitted from a major company-wide effort to reduce unconscious bias.
38 – 40 Almost too good to be true.
Unfortunately, we can never get rid of unconscious bias completely. It effects virtually all organizations in a myriad of ways. In fact, if anyone rated their organization a 5 on all of these statements, I’d worry that they were totally and completely oblivious to bias and the role it plays!
We’re hardwired to be biased. It can be upsetting to learn that unconscious bias is rampant in our organization. But research has shown that everyone has biases. The good news is that we can learn to recognize biases and minimize them.
As an organization, there are several very practical measures you can undertake:
• Educate and train about unconscious bias. The Wall Street Journal reports that 20 percent of large companies in the US now provide unconscious bias training—and that 50 percent will offer it in the next five years.
• Develop decision-making tools like checklists, decision trees, and pro/con charts to standardize processes and make them fairer. Doctors at Johns Hopkins developed a checklist when they discovered that female trauma patients in their hospital were far more likely to die of blood clots than men. One of the surgeons put together a computerized tool that requires doctors to review blood clot prevention for every patient. After the checklist went into effect, appropriate treatment for everyone spiked—and the gender disparity disappeared.
• Create barriers that interfere with bias. The Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford University did just that in an experiment that involved orchestra auditions. Historically, male musicians have outnumbered female orchestra members. So during auditions, the institute erected a screen between judges and musicians. Thanks to the barrier, the number of women musicians hired increased from 5 percent to 25 percent.
As organizations, we need to focus on our power to reduce unconscious bias. A major step is to accept that unconscious bias exists. Once we recognize it, we can begin to reduce its impact and make better decisions that will help us become more successful by meeting our goals and objectives.
Every day we make countless snap decisions without realizing it. At any moment, you’re faced with 11 million pieces of information, but your brain can only process 40 of those bits at a time. So it creates shortcuts. Unfortunately, those shortcuts—or habits of thought—can lead to errors and less-than-ideal choices.
A few years ago, YouTube launched a new video app for the iPhone. Within days, they began receiving complaints that the videos were upside down for many users. It turned out the design was based on an unconscious bias. Everyone on the design team was right-handed. Without realizing it, the developers had created an app that worked best for right-handed people.
Unconscious bias produces blind spots that affect all our choices in subtle and sometimes disturbing ways.
What Biases Are Based On
Biases are based on all kinds of factors. Perhaps most prevalent is race. In a study by two Harvard University sociologists, real people were sent on job interviews for low-wage jobs. They were all given the same interview training and identical resumes. The finding was that black applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at a rate as low as white applicants who did have criminal records. There’s evidence that gender is another leading factor in bias. A well-known study out of Yale University asked a panel of judges to rate two resumes. The panel had nothing to go on but the piece of paper. The resumes were identical in every way, with one exception: one had a man’s name at the top, the other a woman’s. The panel members, male and female alike, rated the male candidate as more qualified. They were even willing to pay the men a higher starting salary. Researchers have found evidence of bias based on a myriad of factors from sexual orientation to height to weight to facial characteristics.
Our values can cause biases. Our thoughts and feelings are based on our values. Those thoughts and feelings drive our decisions and attitudes, then our behavior and the results we produce. The things we say, do and achieve—shown above the dotted line–are visible. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Everything below the dotted line is invisible. The more we know about what’s below the surface for ourselves, the better we understand ourselves.
In our work with generational values, we’ve found that each values group has its own filters—and that those filters come with biases we need to be consciously aware of.
Those with WWII values tend to see the world through the filter of tradition. As a result, they can have a bias against people and ideas they perceive as new and different. If you have WWII values and you’re not aware of your biases, you may not team up well with someone whose appearance is nontraditional. You may reject out-of-hand a promising new program that isn’t in keeping with the way things have traditionally been done in your organization.
Many years ago when he was just in his early twenties, our friend Jim Mitchell was promoted to the marketing staff at the Head Ski Company. In weekly meetings, his suggestions seemed to meet a wall of blank resistance. No one seemed to be taking him seriously. Then he took a vacation. While he was gone, he grew a moustache which made him look three to five years older. When he returned, he was amazed to find how differently his suggestions were received. “Hey, good idea, Jim,” his colleagues would say. “Let’s look into that.” It’s likely that bias against the younger-looking guy had been getting in his way.
Baby Boom Values
Those with Baby Boom values tend to see the world through the filter of team. If you have Baby Boom values, you may unconsciously tend to introduce ideas, solve problems, and generally get work done in teams, forcing people who are actually most effective on their own to work in ways that aren’t natural for them. You may have a bias against independent operators when, in fact, loners can bring valuable insights and even make great team members—if there’s a willingness to honor and adapt to differences.
A consultant we know is a marketing whiz who works on his own as an independent contractor. Recently, he was asked to serve on the board for a first-rate orchestra that was having problems. Attendance was down. Fund-raising was down. The board members had served together as a team for 6 to 12 years, so they thought they needed new blood. Within 60 days, he had delivered a dynamite marketing plan with goals, strategies, timeline and action plan. But the board members rejected it without even giving it a good look. One of them told him they didn’t like his plan because he hadn’t spent “friendly” time socializing with them before, during and after meetings. It’s likely their bias against loners got in the way.
People with X values tend to see the world through the filter of results. If you have X values, you may not be on board with an idea because you just don’t see how it effects the bottom line.
We know a young woman who works for a start-up pharmaceutical company that is on the verge of running out of their first round of venture capital. Because time is running out, the focus is totally on results—and delivering those results on time. The small staff works in silos, each individual responsible only for their own piece. The young woman says that when she asks someone for help, they inevitably respond that they’re sorry, but they’re too busy to help. When she suggests getting together for lunch, they say they’re taking lunch at their desks. The hard-driving push for results is creating a tense atmosphere and low morale. There are things that may not contribute directly to the bottom line but that contribute to the overall well-being and emotional IQ of an organization.
Those with Millennial values tend to see the world through the filter of positivity. If you have Millennial values, you may have a bias against people with a more skeptical approach.
A bias for positivity and a tendency to discount the downside may have contributed to the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Designers of the shuttle’s O-rings knew they weren’t likely to withstand unusually cold conditions, but they focused on the dream and didn’t dwell on worst case scenarios. On the cold morning of the launch, the O-rings froze and broke apart, leading to the disaster. Perhaps a nay-sayer who had focused on every single possible thing that might go wrong could have prevented that tragedy. There’s a role for the skeptic. They serve a purpose organizationally. A pragmatic, hard-nosed approach can bring balance. When we see the faults in things, we’re better able to improve them.
A father and son are in a car accident. They’re rushed to the hospital where the son is sent up to surgery. The surgeon walks in and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.”
What was your first reaction?
Did you guess the surgeon was the boy’s mother? If so, you solved the puzzle. Or perhaps you considered the possibility that the boy had two fathers who were parenting the son together. This also is a solution.
Or were you completely baffled? If so, you’re in good company. When people in recent studies heard the story, only one of five guessed that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother. In English, the word for surgeon doesn’t indicate whether that person is a man or woman, but in many people’s brains, there’s a faulty automatic link between the words “surgeon” and “male.”
These hidden biases are a normal part of being human. But here’s the essential thing to know: they can cause us to act out of sync with our conscious values. They produce blind spots that make it difficult to envision people in roles different from those we’ve automatically assigned them. They affect all our choices in subtle and sometimes disturbing ways. We may inflate an employee’s performance rating. We may overlook a talented person when there’s a job opening. We may not pursue a career that would, in fact, have been perfect for us. We may ignore a business venture that could have been a great success.
You can do your job better by understanding bias, uncovering some of your own biases and working to overcome them. These efforts will give you heightened self-awareness, more reliable decision-making skills and a greater capacity for collaboration.
So what can you do?
1. Acknowledge it.
A major step is to accept that unconscious bias exists—and that you’ve got it. At any given moment, you’re faced with 11 million pieces of information, but your brain can only process 40 of those bits at a time. So it creates shortcuts. Just acknowledging that you have unconscious bias is the first step to doing something about it.
2. Identify your biases.
Work to uncover your hidden assumptions as best you can. It can be upsetting to learn that you hold an unconscious preference for men…or younger people…or thin people…or people of your own race or ethnicity. But when you become aware of the processes going on in your mind, you can begin to counteract them.
Slow down and think twice.
4. Question yourself.
Think through your decision-making process. Ask yourself things like: Why do I judge him to be more qualified? Why do I think she should get a higher score? Why do I think we should pass on this hire? And even: Why do I think I’m not capable of doing this? What is it about this opportunity that frightens me?
5. Seek out differences.
Spend time with people who are different from you—perhaps even people you might have biases against. When we hold a negative view of a group of people and then spend time with an individual who represents that group, there is a good chance our perspective will change.
by Tammy Hughes, CEO, Claire Raines Associates
For organizations to thrive, they must create cultures where individuals are encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work. We’re experts on the generations, and we help organizations to understand and engage the diverse mix of people: people with differing values, those from other cultures, people with different technological backgrounds.
Every week, we hear of people working in rigid organizational cultures that don’t support their natural work styles. Individuals are forced to adapt to the mainstream, at great cost to themselves and their organizations. A woman working in the executive suite at a male-dominated company adopts a command-and-control leadership style although her preferred and more natural style is involvement. A Millennial working in a Gen X-dominated culture is forced to get by with only an annual performance review although he learns and improves when he gets constant, even daily, feedback. A Gen Xer working in a big, friendly open-floor-plan office feels forced to wear a white-noise headset to accommodate his fiercely independent workstyle. A highly creative type working in a quiet, buttoned-down culture must change her wardrobe, curb her enthusiasm and adapt her entire approach just to get through the day.
When employees are forced to operate outside of their natural strengths and behave like the mainstream in order to succeed, they can’t deliver their best. They become frustrated and exhausted. And they exit. Organizations pay high prices for loss of knowledge, increased recruitment and training costs, and an endlessly leaky talent pipeline.
How Core-Strength Friendly is Your Organization?
Diagnose the effectiveness of your work group, team, department, or organization at creating a culture where unique individuals can thrive.
- There is no one successful “type” in this organization: managers, leaders, and those in the most desirable jobs are a mix of ages, sexes, ethnicities, personalities, and styles.
- When a project team is put together, employees with different backgrounds, experiences, skills and viewpoints are consciously included.
- There is lots of conversation—even some humor—about differing viewpoints and perspectives.
- We take time to talk openly about what individuals want from their job…what makes work rewarding…which environment is most productive…what work load and schedule serves best.
- Our atmosphere and policies are based on the work being done, the customers being served, and the preferences of the people who work here.
- There is a minimum of bureaucracy and “red tape.”
- We assume the best of and from our people; we treat everyone—from the newest recruit to the most seasoned employee—as if they have great things to offer and will succeed.
Diversity is critical—not to even the score, hit quotas, or create balance for balance’s sake. Diversity is critical because it benefits the bottom line. By identifying and implementing strategies for working across differences, organizations become more productive and effective. Current research shows that diverse teams are more productive and generate higher profits than homogenous teams. But increased productivity can only happen when organizations shape work cultures that support and even encourage individual difference. Instead of struggling with differences, they capitalize on them.
Tammy Hughes, CEO, Claire Raines Associates
Tammy is a dynamic facilitator, presenter and business leader with over two decades of experience in a broad spectrum of organizations and industries around the globe. She launched her career at Xerox Corporation in their Corporate Education and Training Division. She began as a salesperson at Claire Raines Associates in 1998 and served as company president from 2006 to 2012 when she became CEO.
Participants’ response to Tammy as a session leader has been overwhelmingly positive. She is fascinated by and knowledgeable about generational and values differences—and her passion permeates her style. She paints the research with fun, real-life stories from the workplace and her life. By working with participants to identify strategies, skills, and tools they will use to create more effective work relationships, Tammy facilitates dramatically increased business results.
She studied communication arts at Cedarville College in Ohio and holds a BAAS degree from Midwestern State University in Texas. Tammy is the author of a White Paper, “Born in One Generation, Thinking Like Another” which includes a statistical analysis of the Values & Influence Assessment™. With Pat Heim, Tammy is the co-author of the third edition of Hardball for Women (Plume, 2015). Tammy lives in Wichita Falls, Texas. She is married and has two young-adult sons.