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  • Writer's pictureBobbi K Dominick

How Do We Confront and Eliminate Unconscious Bias in Leadership Decisions?

Which of the candidates above would be the best hire for your organization? We make those decisions based on lots of data, but also based on lots of internal assumptions that we are not always conscious of. Consider these scenarios:

  •       Jamal and Greg send nearly identical resumes to multiple companies in multiple industries, each applying for the same jobs.  Greg received 50% more “call backs” for interviews for those jobs.  The same thing happened when Emily and Lakisha sent out resumes, with Emily receiving the much higher level of call backs.[i]

  •        When “Sue” is evaluated on her performance, successes are 2.4 times more likely to be attributed to team effort, rather than to Sue’s individual effort.  “Allen’s” performance review was twice as likely to contain strong performance words like transform, innovate and tackle, while “Sue’s” performance is much more likely to contain softer words like supportive, collaborative, and helpful.[ii]       Interestingly, when asked for words to describe a great manager, most responded with the stronger words typically used to describe the performance of males in the workplace.

  •       Ginger and Rachel, who look nearly identical, apply for the same jobs, and one submits a candidate photo wearing professional attire, the other submits a photo wearing a low cut top.  The latter is 19 times more likely to land a job interview.[iii]

All of these studies simply help us to articulate and demonstrate what we already know.  Each human person has a multitude of innate and invisible biases.  Most biases we are not even aware that we have.  Yet those biases control our thoughts and sometimes even our actions.  Some of the biases may be harmless, like preferring fans of one sports team to another.  But others may stem from discriminatory attitudes towards a protected class, and those are the dangerous biases that we need to uncover and eliminate.  Why do these unconscious biases exist?  Because our brains must function that way.  We take in way too much information to be able to consciously process all of it in any given moment.  So our brain reverts to what it knows or what it believes, processing information quickly, but not always flawlessly.  This results in biases like:· Confirmation bias, where we automatically assign more weight to information that confirms what we already believe, and· Familiarity bias where we are naturally more comfortable with those we know, or· Affinity bias where we are more comfortable with those who are like us.  Biologically we are “hard-wired” to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests and beliefs.  We also tend to internalize society’s biases as well, accepting them as reality.  So stereotypes are born, and sometimes they are ingrained.  Women are better at taking notes, and are not as strong, they are helpful team players, but perhaps not aggressive leaders.  Older people are weaker, Jewish people are ______, simply fill in the blank for every category of people you can think of (Irish, Catholic, Muslim, Refugee, Native American, white men, gay, doctor, black, etc.)  and you will uncover common stereotypes. We all know people in those categories who do not fit the stereotype, yet the assumptions persist.  Unconsciously, it may cause a hiring partner to prefer a man for a manager position, or a younger person for a career position, or a woman for a nursing or teaching position. When such hidden biases play a part in organizational decision-making, the shortcuts that often serve us well  can lead to poor decisions and actual discrimination.  So organizational leaders have to recognize this phenomenon, and fight against it.  Decisions about who to hire and recruit, who would be a “good fit” for a particular position, assessments of individual performance, decisions on promotion to leadership, choices about building an effective team, etc. are all decisions that can be impacted by this hidden bias. So what can you do?

  • Be aware that unconscious bias affects all of us. Don’t be afraid to examine your own biases.

  • On big decisions, slow down and elaborate on why you are reaching your conclusions.

  • Be willing to be challenged. Get the perspectives of a wide variety of people with different experiences.

  • Think about whether any of the common biases, like familiarity biases or stereotyping, can be clouding your judgment.

  • Attend training on unconscious bias whenever possible, and read as much as you can about it.

  • Promote diversity and inclusion initiatives within your organizations.


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