Neuroleadership Lessons: Recognizing and Mitigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

November 30, 2016

Neuroleadership Lessons: Recognizing and Mitigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Because it is universal, unconscious bias impacts the workplace at all levels. Everyone has biases due to the way the brain is hardwired. Unconscious bias directly affects not only who gets hired, developed and promoted but also the ability of a team to be high performing, the effectiveness of leadership decision making, the health or lack thereof of an organization’s culture, and ultimately, the success of an organization as a whole. Because of its far-reaching consequences, it is imperative to assess to what extent an organization’s culture and business results are being impacted by unconscious bias and then take appropriate measures to mitigate the associated risk.

 

Brain Science: It’s All in the Wiring

Unconscious bias is innate to all human beings. People are hardwired to prefer those who look, sound, and share similar interests. Neurologically, these preferences are unconscious and bypass rational thinking. Each day the brain processes billions of stimuli. This process takes place in the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with threat and fear. Information processed in the amygdala is used to survive, make assumptions, and feel emotions that cause one to be attracted to certain people (those in the in-group) but not to others (those in the out-group). Due to the quickness and efficiency of this part of the brain, bias often results for which the person is unaware.

Information received by the brain also travels through the hippocampus. This part of the brain forms links between memories and quickly deciphers the meaning of data received. When data received is matched to a person’s stored memories and personal stories, the brain processes that those stored memories are the “correct” ones. Outside of one’s conscious awareness, the brain seeks to reinforce just how right we are and, as a result, may cause us to make decisions based upon individual biases.

Other parts of the brain also play a part in unconscious bias. The left temporal lobe of the brain stores information about people and objects and is the place for social stereotyping. The brain’s frontal cortex is the area associated with empathy, reasoning, and forming impressions of others. The brain quickly processes and categorizes the vast amounts of information it receives and then tags that information with general descriptions that it can rapidly sort. Bias occurs when those categories are labeled as “good” or “bad” and those labels are applied to entire groups. While this type of categorizing helps the brain to make quick decisions about what is safe or not safe, this type of hardwiring in the brain creates unconscious bias that is universal to everyone.

 

What Does This Mean for Me and My Organization?

Most human decisions are made emotionally. The brain has a hardwired pattern of making decisions about others that are based on what feels safe, likeable, competent, and valuable. Bias towards what is similar drives decisions more so than actual merit. To compound this, unconscious processing in the brain governs the majority of important decisions we make. The brain is unable to simultaneously make a decision and at the same moment notice if that decision is biased. What this means it that because we have brains, essentially we are all biased.

In addition to individual bias, unconscious bias also occurs at the organizational level. Collective unconscious patterns of behavior have great and often long-lasting influence over organizational decisions and cultural thinking and interaction. These types of patterns perpetuate old, negative norms and keep unhealthy behavior firmly rooted at the expense of the good of the organization and its employees.

While the impact of unconscious bias can be significant, there is some good news. In his whitepaper Leadership Pitfalls and Insights into Unconscious Bias (2016), Michael Brainard, Ph.D., and CEO of Brainard Strategy, advises that by educating leaders and challenging their way of thinking as well as their policy making, decisions and practices around hiring, developing, and promoting all different types of people, then one can more rapidly make an impact across an organization than by standard diversity and inclusion initiatives which often do little if anything to mitigate unconscious bias in the workplace.

 

Recognizing Unconscious Bias

There are more than 150 types of unconscious bias that are common to the workplace. Some of the types of unconscious bias that can impact an organization include:

  • Affinity Bias. Having the tendency to prefer or like those similar to oneself.
     
  • In-Group Bias. Perceiving those who are similar in a more positive way.
     
  • Halo Effect. Having the tendency to believe only good about someone because they are liked or letting someone’s positive qualities in one area influence the overall perception of that person.
     
  • Out-Group Bias. Perceiving those who are different in a more negative way.
     
  • Perception Bias. Having the tendency to form assumptions or stereotypes about certain groups thus making it impossible to make objective decisions about members of those groups.
     
  • Blind Spot. Identifying biases in others but not oneself.
     
  • Confirmation Bias. Having the tendency to seek information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions, or conversely to discount information that is incongruent with one’s assumptions.
     
  • Group Think. Having the tendency to try and fit into a particular group by either mimicking their behavior or holding back on sharing thoughts and opinions out of fear of potential exclusion.
     
  • Belief Bias. Having the tendency to decide whether an argument for something is strong or weak based upon whether one agrees with the conclusion of that argument.
     
  • Anchoring Bias.  Having the tendency to rely heavily upon the first piece of information available rather than seeking out and fully evaluating multiple sources of information when making a decision.

 

Ways to Mitigate the Issue

The first step toward mitigating unconscious bias in the workplace is to increase awareness that the brain is hardwired toward this tendency. Neuroscientist David Rock advises organizations to identify the various types of bias likely to be present in their workplace and then make a collective effort to overcome the negative impact of those biases. Along these same lines it can be beneficial to conduct employee surveys to identify specific issues involving hidden bias and unfairness that might exist within the organization.

Other ways to help mitigate unconscious bias include reviewing all aspects of the employment process such as applicant screening, interviewing, onboarding, performance evaluation, identifying high performers, mentoring, promotions, and terminations. By developing more robust processes for evaluating talent that include multi-trait and multi-method approaches, and then connecting assessment techniques with the decision making process, an organization is more likely to minimize bias while improving its talent management function.

It is also beneficial to train leaders to become comfortable in coaching, providing feedback, and interacting more frequently with all staff under their area of responsibility, including those seen as less similar. To create high performing teams, leaders should strive to encourage collective input along with respectful debate, undertake rigorous evaluation of data, and seek holistic solutions. Leaders should also become more aware of their own biases, utilize disciplined thinking, and be open to multiple sources of information when making decisions.

 

Bringing It All Together

By gaining an understanding of how the human brain works, one can become more aware of the unconscious processes taking place in the brain when formulating opinions and making decisions. While bias exists in everyone, through concerted effort, the impact of unconscious bias can be diminished by increasing awareness and facilitating changes to thinking, behavior, and organizational practices. In doing so, leaders can increase productivity, create greater innovation, foster more inclusion, improve talent selection processes, and build healthier and more diverse workplace cultures which ultimately benefits everyone within the organization.

 

The Authors: 

Andrea Choate is an HR executive, business consultant, and professional writer. She advises organizations on people strategies that facilitate business growth and profitability, as well as the value of a happy and highly productive workplace.

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