Oct 16 2019| Leadership

Unconscious Bias

And How it Suffocates Leadership Creativity

by Phil Eyre Founder

‘We can be blind to the obvious and we are also blind to our blindness’ - Daniel Kahneman, 2002, Nobel Peace Prize winner in Economic Sciences and author of Thinking Fast and Slow.


Do you make decisions based on your gut instinct? Perhaps you take pride in the fact that you can judge whether a potential recruit will fit in or not within 20 seconds. Or whether a customer will sign up within 10 seconds of meeting them. It might take even less time than that; experiments by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov suggest that it takes just a fraction of a second for most people to form an initial impression of a stranger. Whilst great leadership includes strong instincts, making such quick judgements - which we usually then reinforce - can be a significant problem for creativity, risk awareness and problem solving.


Fast thinking and autopilot

Unconscious - or implicit - biases are those that we are not yet aware of; they influence our judgements of other people and decisions about them. Such cognitive biases are essentially a systematic error in the thinking process, connected to a ‘fast thinking’ belief.

Humans are exceptionally efficient creatures; our brains are wired to create shortcuts, without which daily life would be immensely difficult. We lead a significant part of our lives essentially on autopilot. Even in reading this article, you are fast thinking though anticipated patterns of words and phrases, thankfully not having to think slowly about every letter, syllable, space and potential meaning (the word ‘space’ on its own has multiple meanings).


Is our threat assessment based on stereotypes or facts?

We all have similar fast thinking when it comes to other people. We are quickly assessing threat, opportunity and potential for connection. We are processing cues, especially visual signals, in a nanosecond and making judgements. The influence of our experiences and environment shape our judgements - essential for helping us to turn chaos into order and finding our fit in a group or society. These shortcuts can be helpful, for example enabling us to stay away from someone who has knowingly caused harm. But they are also often based on stereotypes rather than the actual facts or objective knowledge of a person or circumstance.


The pitfalls of unconscious bias

And that’s where the problem lies for leaders. Our biases are only a guideline and are not always right. We might miss:


  • a brilliant recruit
  • a ‘genius’ idea
  • a rewarding customer
  • spotting unusual risks
  • creative innovation that keeps us on the front foot in a changing world


Affinity bias in leadership teams

The risk is that biases become self-sustaining. For example, building a leadership team of like-experienced people, who have perhaps received a similar type of education, grown up in a similar area and followed a similar path to leadership. This type of bias - affinity bias - will limit creativity and potentially create an echo chamber of ideas in the team.

Or a halo effect will cause us to be biased towards someone who has achieved something ‘great’ - a top salesperson, an award winner - that affects our opinion about everything else they do. They might not objectively be the best person for the opportunity you have in mind, but your bias will cause you to think that they are, much to the chagrin of better equipped colleagues.


Confirmation bias and affirmation bias

Confirmation bias - searching for, interpreting and remembering information that supports our preconceived belief - limits the sophistication with which we approach risk and problem solving. The same incident will be perceived and interpreted differently by everyone who experiences or hears about it, even if only subtly. Sometimes confirmation bias creates more divisive opinions as current political discourse globally, in the UK and closer to home will demonstrate. The same facts, interpreted totally differently. Confirmation bias can quickly lead to attribution bias, which seeks to explain the reasons for others’ actions without evidence or concrete facts to support their assumptions (‘She must be struggling to balance her home and work life’).


Unconscious bias turns off engagement

It is not only creative thinking, risk awareness and problem solving that can be limited by our biases. Research by the Centre for Talent shows us that employee engagement plummets where people perceive unconscious bias is at play. Employees are three times more likely to say they want to leave their employer and twice as likely to withhold ideas from their employer when compared with low-bias companies. This hits the bottom line; companies in the top quartile for cultural and ethnic diversity are 33% more likely to outperform their peers.  

In our work with leaders, we frequently encounter bias, reflected in comments and statements. We have heard:

‘He’s driven and determined…she’s bitchy and hard work’: describing two people with similar styles.

‘We’re an attractive place for millennials’: exec team with an average age of 60.

‘..but he’s a great salesman’: with reference to an underperforming salesperson who is consistently disruptive and negative.

‘They work twice as hard and for half the money’: referring to people from a particular country.


Given that unconscious bias is unconscious, how do we identify and tackle it?

This begins with pausing - even if only briefly - before making a merit-based decision to check ourselves. ‘Are there possible biases that have led to this decision? What questions haven’t I asked? What objective information have I excused?’ This is especially the case when we are tired, under tight time pressure or stressed, when our brains are even more susceptible to fast thinking.  For most us, that means taking a conscious step to pause and reflect. This could include:  


  • an extra 10 minutes after a job interview
  • scheduled time in the diary before appointing someone to a prestigious project
  • keeping a self-reflective question in sight, e.g. around your desk.


The ‘flip it to test it’ technique

Another technique coined by Kristen Pressner, Head of HR for Roche Diagnostics (35,000 people), is ‘flip it to test it’. What she means is that, if you are applying value to descriptions about a person or people, you should flip those adjectives to someone different. In her excellent TED talk, Kristen describes how we are generally biased to associate ‘taking charge’ words with men and ‘taking care’ words (supportive, emotional, sensitive, fragile) with women. If flipping these words around seems weird, then it’s likely you have some unconscious bias.


Ask for feedback

Inviting feedback is a powerful way to grow in self-awareness, including around our perceived biases. Do others observe bias that you haven’t seen in yourself and is that founded? Inviting feedback can be easily said, but is not so easily done - especially when considering bias. Often those who perceive our biases are, to some extent, disenfranchised by the very bias that they observe. ‘Dear manager, yes I think you’re biased towards attractive women, which is why I haven’t been given the same opportunities’ would be quite a difficult and rare conversation! Without a healthy feedback culture, where conversations like this are normal, inviting feedback can have the very opposite effect. If colleagues don’t feel able to be completely honest, we might take them at face value, affirming our belief that we are not biased.

Appointing a ‘devil’s advocate’ can be a helpful way of avoiding confirmation bias as well as groupthink. Their role is simply to challenge and question ‘fast-thinking’ decisions. Have all avenues been explored? Is there objective reasoning, or is the group relying too much on instinct and untested belief? Their role will almost certainly require further work to be performed before a decision is affirmed (or changed), however this need not take long and will potentially unlock less biased and more valuable choices.


Human data can pinpoint likely bias

In our work, we utilise insight from psychometrics to help identify likely sources of bias and how fast thinking is potentially beneficial and potentially holding back the choices that a leader or a leadership team are making. Objectivity such as this is a powerful way to harness the benefits of fast thinking.


Is unconscious bias helping our hindering your decision-making? We can help you to find out!

About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the NED Forum and the Institute of Directors.

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