Overcoming Unconscious Bias


Full interview: Re-posted from Institute of Managers and Leaders

Leadership Matters Magazine | December 2019 Edition.

What is the prevalence of unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion decisions?


Both conscious and unconscious biases are prevalent in standard corporate activities, including recruitment and promotion. Unconscious biases are cognitively embedded, revealing themselves in everyday interpersonal interactions, most noticeably by an external other versus oneself and, let us not forget about conscious biases as well.


Recruitment and promotion activities in the workplace are obviously areas these heuristics play out frequently. This is quite obvious when we observe and interpret why particular layers of corporate hierarchies may have similar demographics traditionally associated with those layers. For instance, consider upper echelons versus lower rungs. It is obvious to most of us by now that we have major demographic imbalances in the upper layers of corporate hierarchies. We know that certain cohorts are hired and promoted for a multitude of reasons, notwithstanding culture fit.


Hiring on the basis of culture fit is one instance in the recruitment process where biases go easily unchallenged. The circle then closes in on itself. The same demographically-suited person is hired, the opportunity for bias transcendence is lost and the process continuously repeats itself. Conscious and unconscious bias is why gender imbalances in corporate hierarchies are prevalent, not to mention the many other problematic issues associated with workplace diversity disparities across industry sectors.


Firm size: does it play a role?

The size of the firm is of course relevant, however in comparison with the prevalence of highly problematic biases across industry sectors, the latter prevails. Also, in my experience as an organisational anthropologist, smaller firms appear to do less proactive work in this area in large part due to funding and resourcing issues. However, this is not always the case. Larger firms have the additional issue of synchronising training rollout. Typically, the upper echelons undergo training first. Then training is rolled out to middle management and then frontline staff.


Continuous improvement pressures surround the average organisational member, including, but not limited to: profitability, general productivity, cost reduction demands and the recent buzzwords to enter the corporate vernacular - generating creativity and innovation. Cognition is spread across all these workplace responsibilities causing competing demands upon employees.


Unconscious bias transcendence, in many respects, has to compete with those demands because KPIs are closely associated with role expectations. Those demands, of course, consequently challenge one’s mental space for transformative introspection. In my view, additional thinking time is needed. We only have so much attention to spare at any one time and KPIs, in the short term, seem to come first.


Industry sectors have their own problems and shouldn’t be addressed with the same approach. One can’t expect to have positive change in, for instance, the finance sector when the major biases associated with that sector are poorly recognised or understood. It is pointless to use the same training in every industry sector. Therefore, there is a need to correctly observe what the organisation in that particular industry sector needs and tailor training and programs at a much finer-grained level.


One way to address unconscious biases is to first ‘read’ collective behavioural manifestations and the problems associated with the thinking behind those collective behaviours. Therefore, the collective mindset of the organisation is relevant, particularly the collection of mindsets at the top. Who is running the organisation? What are the leaders up to? Do leaders intrinsically understand the need to fix some of the bigger social and cultural issues associated with heuristics experienced in the workplace? Are they trying to cover up biases and their outcomes or adequately address them? If they are addressing them, how so? Do those approaches seem plausible? Are those approaches working? What is the motivation behind addressing those issues? Is unconscious bias training exclusively the answer when we know it doesn’t work in isolation because of the many reasons I have mentioned above.

Does using a panel mitigate against unconscious bias?

Most organisations these days tend to have at least two interviewers, if not more. Of course, it depends on who you have on the panel. If you have individuals on the panel who are demographically similar, you are going to have pertinent blind spots preventing a clearer idea of the candidate’s identity, an interpretative process that is going on in the panel’s mind at the time of hiring.


Demographically similar panels typically result in hiring outcomes that succumb to demographically similar candidates often based on superficial qualities that seem to be centred on a risk reduction approach to hiring rather than putting the additional cognitive workload in to understanding those candidates who are obviously different, that is, where the observable disparities are evident. ‘Different’ here is an important word to interpret and think about. Underneath external facades, we are all fundamentally the same. An atypical candidate, thus, offers less comfort and more risk to the panel’s decision-making processes because similarities are more obscure. In such instances, it’s necessary to look beyond people’s superficial dimensions. Much can be understood when one is truly open to the curiosity of understanding those who are unlike themselves. Common ground can be found where one least expects it. The recruitment process is a perfect place to practice this mentality and interpersonal approach to life more broadly.

Which affinity bias is most commonly problematic?


There are several common biases. However, two biases that I feel are worthy of mention are: the false consensus effect and the self-serving bias. Both are truly detrimental in routine organisational life. In the workplace, organisational members may overestimate how much others they work with agree with their own way of thinking, their beliefs, their behaviours and attitudes and their overarching values.


Colleagues in the workplace often allow those with power and privilege to think that their ideas are better than they actually are in reality, allowing those with power and privilege to save face as a means to reduce the negative consequences resulting from authentically voicing an accurate opinion. However, underneath, perhaps a different truth lays dormant. The key for all organisational members, in my opinion, is to get to the truth of collegial opinions. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves.


Giving voice to those individuals who are keenly observant but who would normally choose to avoid offering an opinion is a worthy exercise. Also, look at what is being omitted from interpersonal interactions, both verbally and behaviourally. The key to understanding others is often present in the silences and omissions within interpersonal interactions.


The self-serving bias is problematic for different reasons. Consequently, this may lead to the overvaluation of one’s own opinions, a comforting of the ego per se. In this respect, individuals may give themselves undeserving credit for organisational success. When the antithesis occurs, perhaps through individual and organisational failures, for that individual, it may feel plausible to lay the blame on others or even outside causes. The ego aims to protect itself. It is a commonly experienced heuristic and a highly problematic one.


Are there mechanical processes that mitigate against unconscious bias?


One way to mitigate biases is to become as familiar with yourself as possible. Increasing one’s conscious awareness is a life-long process. It is part of a larger set of consciousness-shaping life experiences with internal and external agents.


Socialisation and self-development are some ways of looking at the evolution of conscious awareness, yet there are probably many more. Consciousness, then, is not a stable construct but an ongoing fleeting and perhaps fragmentary aspect of individual life. Consider that if you know yourself well, you are in a better situation to read others, particularly when retrospectively recognising your unconscious behaviours towards them through introspection. As mentioned, this is experienced most often as a delayed reflective experience—a retrospective and insight-delayed process. Intrinsic self-understanding and self-knowledge enable a clearer, less ambiguous and therefore more accurate interpretation of others. This is a good defence, or perhaps, the only defence for transcending unconscious bias.


What good are mechanical processes for intrinsic transformation at both the individual and collective organisational level? I would much rather those responsible for hiring think through the interviewing process in more evolved, humanistic ways than rely on applications that are seemingly doing the work for them. Consider the hiring process as an opportunity to evolve one’s thinking by becoming more aware of others and then rectifying one’s erroneous thinking patterns. This works in conjunction with the primary responsibility, which is, in this case, to hire someone for a role.


Those who keep their attention focused on themselves and others at the same time consciously experience a great deal of what is going on around them, their thinking, how others are thinking and the overarching behavioural patterns associated with those collective thinking patterns. At this point, mechanical processes, in my humble opinion, are simply unable to handle such complex matters.


Unconscious bias training is often not effective. Here are some reasons why!


It is difficult for people to cognitively process conceptual understandings of biases and relate them back experientially in their own lives. We are asking people to understand and interpret their behavioural implications, which are a product of their unconscious mind, that is, behavioural manifestations that sit outside one’s awareness threshold. For those who are emotionally and cognitively more aware of such things, there may be small payoffs for this type of training because the introspective process occurs more readily for those types of individuals, but for those who lack higher levels of intelligence, particularly emotional intelligence, this is like asking them to introspect aspects of their own behaviour which they cognitively cannot process. In other words, it might be too difficult to go there.


Introspection may challenge one’s identity and their conceptions of self and ultimately confront how one operates in the world that surrounds them. From this perspective, if insight is generated, discomfort can be felt. People generally move away from discomfort and therefore find it hard to address their own biases because of it.


I have written an article on this particular question. Here is an excerpt:


Of all the companies I know who have taken part in unconscious bias training, not one of them is able to tell us, with absolute confidence, that it has resulted in sustainable behavioural change. In fact, I asked a question at a Diversity and Inclusion conference last year to a senior manager who was in charge of Diversity and Inclusion in a large government organisation, as she put it, ‘we don’t even know how to measure it, if it is doing anything at all.’


Most people, and rightly so, see unconscious bias training as a 'tick the box' exercise because organisations have no other concepts or ideas on how to tackle it. When I have asked leaders about becoming more insightful through the application of the key learnings taken from unconscious bias training, often there is an uncomfortable silence that follows. Not many are able to experientially communicate to me how, under what circumstances, when and where they have become ‘more conscious’ in their working lives and how the perceived reduction of collective heuristics through training has benefited the overarching organisational culture. Also, the perception that an organisation is doing something in this space seems to be important from a public image perspective which is not the right motivation for anything, be it training or otherwise.


Unconscious bias training or programs can be counter-productive if they make people feel defensive and offended. How can this be avoided?


Unconscious bias training isn’t counter-productive if it causes a reaction triggered by cognitive defences. If someone has reacted due to some or all of the content, that is exactly where one should start introspection. Dive deep into the trigger points. That reaction is a gateway towards deeper self-analysis and understanding. A reaction suggests that there is something hidden in that person’s psyche that requires transcendence. However, bias conceptualisations mostly need an application for transcendence, in other words, applying what you are learning conceptually in real-time.


What is needed for training and a follow-up program to be successful?


Ongoing mindfulness training is valuable and a worthy consideration. Mindfulness training can be carried out before, in conjunction with, and post bias training. If an organisation can afford to do both, then do both. The mindfulness state allows one to observe their thoughts and behaviour more readily, hence it is a worthwhile combination to consider. Again, any training, particularly unconscious bias training, should be tailored for the industry sector, organisational culture, levels of corporate hierarchies, specific roles and other idiosyncrasies pertinent to the specific organisation. The one size fits all approach is not effective.

At the personal and cultural level, what are effective tools to overcome unconscious bias?


The personal level is simpler to conceptualise, but hard to overcome because it requires the individual to bring to conscious awareness difficult realities about themselves. The main thing to avoid is judging oneself negatively when an insight becomes conscious. Rather, accept the cognitive bias as is and carefully look where it plays out in everyday life, then, correct it by stopping the thought pattern that leads to that repetitive thought process or behaviour. Write it down, become objectively familiar with it - then stop it.


As mentioned, you can teach people conceptualisations of biases, however, it isn’t until people connect with insight and personal feelings associated with such biases in their own lives that transcendence of those biases may occur, resulting in reduced myopic perspectives of the world, the people in it and perhaps, more importantly, conceptions of self. Mindfulness meditation, journal writing or any other introspective practice is a good idea. Moreover, documenting decisions one makes coupled with retrospective analysis concerning the outcomes of those decisions are some ideas to address biases at the individual level.


From a culture perspective, heuristic transcendence is a much more challenging issue to address. There are more variables associated with bias problems at the collective level—more people are involved in the process with different levels of insight, motivation and intellect, at different stages of their lives and careers more generally.


Cultural dynamics are complex in and of themselves. There are not only layers of culture, which should be, at the very least, loosely identified and understood, but also divergent cultural perspectives that should be taken into account. For instance, how does the leadership team view and create culture? Leadership biases will undoubtedly play out in how the leadership team aim to control or engineer culture. However, there are other cultural perspectives as well. Different departments or sub-groups, for instance, also shape culture through their biases.


Simply put, heuristics play out within all layers and levels of culture creation and moment-to-moment re-creation. It’s important to pay attention to the micro details of organisational life and interpret details of finer interpersonal exchange, those fundamental microstructures of interpersonal relations in order to better observe our biases.

About the author

Theaanna Kiaos is an Organisational Anthropologist. Theaanna's research of specialisation is ethnography. Her academic research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning in organisations, managerial ideology and normative control with a particularly strong focus concerning how these interconnected phenomena impact marginal cohorts in the workplace. She has been interviewed on SBS World News and has also been interviewed as a subject matter expert by Women's Agenda and Shortlist.

Contact: Theaanna.Kiaos@diversityfirst.com.au

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