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This blog is provided by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts. It is a companion to his interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias that aired on Tuesday, November 10th, 2020.
How can leaders defeat unconscious bias? First, you need to know what unconscious bias is.
Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on. It differs from cognitive bias, which is a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the most likely way of reaching our goals.
In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want. Despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns, these are two separate and distinct concepts.
Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains, while unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example – a geographic instead of one across time – most people in the US don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.
As a frequent speaker and trainer on diversity and inclusion to address potential unconscious discriminatory behavior, I regularly share in speeches that unconscious bias in recruitment is quite common. Take for example an entrepreneurial start-up with just over 80 employees that provides businesses with video and email marketing services. The company’s senior leadership approached me a few months ago to coach their managerial and HR staff on recruitment practices to address implicit bias.
In the middle of our initial Zoom coaching session and as participants were describing their existing hiring process to me, I stumbled upon a common – but nonetheless counterproductive – pattern when they hire staff. Despite processes in place to ensure that discriminatory behavior will be avoided, the company’s recruitment and hiring managers often relied on gut instincts when making decisions.
This results in a workplace that isn’t diverse and inclusive. It eventually promotes people with the same profiles to leadership positions – who will then make the same kinds of hiring decisions, thereby instituting and fortifying a self-reinforcing loop.
It happens because most employers tend to decide with their guts over their heads and end up hiring people who they like and perceive as part of their in-group, instead of basing decisions on applicants’ qualifications. While there are certain situations where relying on gut instinct makes sense, it’s a bad idea when hiring staff or promoting employees.
In this common scenario, unconscious bias manifests when recruiters and hiring managers pick candidates who are similar to them in race, gender, and socioeconomic background. This can extend to minor things such as speaking and gesture styles, and even clothing choices. Our gut automatically differentiates the people who can be part of our in-group due to their similarity to us, and this raises their status in our eyes. Hiring managers who heed this instinct give in to unconscious bias, as I explained to the coaching participants.
However, I was careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Such cultures are perpetuated by internal norms, policies, and training procedures, and any company wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than attributing discriminatory behavior to certain employees. In other words, instead of saying it’s a few bad apples in a barrel of overall good ones, the key is recognizing that implicit bias is a systemic issue, and the structure and joints of the barrel needs to be fixed. This is what I told the start-up’s leadership team when I gave my feedback before we buckled down and made plans to address the issue.
Taking Decisive Steps to Address Unconscious Bias
The crucial thing to highlight is that there is no shame or blame in implicit bias, as it’s not stemming from any fault in the individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight defensive response among reluctant audiences and coaching participants, helping them hear and accept the issue.
Still, in the case of the start-up company, I received feedback that implicit bias was still affecting some of the hiring managers even after two coaching sessions. It was clear from this behavior that these particular participants didn’t immediately internalize the evidence presented to them. It was much more comforting for them to feel that their gut instinct is right, and they are reluctant to follow the processes in place to avoid discriminatory behavior.
The issue of unconscious bias doesn’t match their intuitions. Thus, they rejected this concept, despite extensive and strong evidence for how it negatively impacts the hiring process and workplace diversity and inclusivity.
This example of how to fight unconscious bias illustrates broader patterns you need to follow to address such problems in order to address unconscious bias to make the best people decisions. After all, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgment choices, when we simply follow our intuitions.
1) Instead, you need to start by learning about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias yourself, so that you know what you’re trying to address.
2) Then, you need to convey to people who you want to influence, such as your employees or any other group or even yourself, that there should be no shame or guilt in acknowledging our instincts.
3) Next, you need to convey the dangers associated with following their intuitions, to build up an emotional investment into changing behaviors.
4) Then, you need to convey the right mental habits that will help them make the best choices.
Remember, a one-time training is insufficient for doing so. It takes a long-term commitment and constant discipline and efforts to overcome unconscious bias.
Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify and iHeartRADIO. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.
About the Author
Gleb Tsipursky: An internationally-recognized thought leader known as the Disaster Avoidance Expert, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he is best known for Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic (Changemakers Books, 2020). He published over 550 articles and gave more than 450 interviews to prominent venues such as Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts. It also stems from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.