How Unconscious Bias Impacts Teams & Business


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Unconscious bias. This is an important week because this topic is the front line for organizations to begin having conversations and doing work around diversity and inclusion. You really can’t start to build a culture that embraces D&I without developing awareness around unconscious bias, the impact it has inside teams and organizations, and how to address it. 

This is week three (of four) of our Diversity & Inclusion series. Because this is such a big topic with a lot of context, we highly recommend checking out weeks one and two as well along with this article: 

  1. Diversity & Inclusion: What If I Say The Wrong Thing? (Week 1)

  2. Representation & Inclusion in the Workplace (Week 2)

Bias: we all have it.

Unconscious bias is typically defined as judgements and perceptions about an individual or group as compared to another, in favor or against them, in a way that is usually unsupported or unfair. In many cases it has a huge and negative impact on the way individuals relate to and react to each other based on assumptions about who they are, what they bring to the table, etc. 

Right off the bat, it's important to acknowledge the reality that unconscious bias exists for all of us; it’s a natural element of being human. The point of addressing and discussing it is not to attempt to get rid of unconscious bias, that would be nearly impossible to do.

The purpose of the conversation is to illuminate and increase awareness of it, identify blind spots, and become willing to challenge biases when they show up and you recognize them.

Why unconscious bias is bad for business.

If unconscious bias rules the day, hiring managers and companies will hire and promote the wrong people; ones who are ultimately not the best candidate for the role.

Unconscious bias will cloud your vision and perception of other people and situations, and prevent you from being able to make good, objective decisions. One of the ways that it's detrimental to companies is the impact it has in the hiring process and promoting people inside an organization. If unconscious bias rules the day, hiring managers and companies hire and promote the wrong people; ones who are ultimately not the best candidate for the role.

Here are three ways that unconscious bias shows up on teams and organizations: 

  1. Hiring process. There is the all too common “mini-me” bias of managers hiring people that look like them, sound like them, and that they have rapport with; instead of the best candidate for the position. Yes, that can cause unintended discrimination around age, or race, or gender, but that kind of bias can be connected to anything about a person. For example, I love NASA and space, and I might be interviewing a candidate who also loves space and NASA and we may have a strong connection around that.

    There is nothing wrong with that connection, but the fact that a hiring manager has things in common with a candidate almost certainly has no bearing on their ability to perform their role. Where the bad, costly decisions in that process happen is that due to that manager’s personal rapport with the candidate, they might grant leniency or gloss over weaknesses that candidate has due to their affinity for them.

    Likewise, that manager may be way less lenient to other candidates if they have less of a personal connection, and also treat those interviews very differently. As a result, the person who gets the job may be the one the manager liked the most, but isn’t objectively the best one for the role.

    Repeat that process 1,000 times over in an organization and you have an army of leaders and employees who look and think and act exactly like each other. That lack of diversity is a huge weakness for an organization when it comes to innovation, representation, high quality leaders, performance, retention, and, and, and. It’s extremely dangerous for business.

  2. Faultlines on teams. This is the "in” group, "out” group of teams. Even within teams it is easy to unintentionally create the dynamic of one or more people feeling excluded. This might be a group of people that have kids, for example, or are the same age, or their kids go to the same school, or they come from the same career path or department within the company, or come from the same outside industries, etc.

    It is easy to create these kinds of cliques on teams. And yes, of course everyone has people they work with that they connect with or are friends with. The important conversation is the awareness of the team to make sure that by their behavior and the way that some people interact together that they are not unintentionally making someone feel like an outsider and excluded.

    When people feel welcome and included, they are more engaged, take more ownership, and contribute more productively in their roles. Teams benefit from having a lens of awareness around how these faultlines can develop and being intentional about being inclusive.

  3. Confirmation bias or perception bias. This is where, for example, a leader dismisses or ignores every idea that didn't come out of their own mouth, and always believes that their way is the right and only way.

    There’s more than one way to get to the same business result. People who feel like their contributions and ideas are ignored by headstrong leaders who don’t ever make them even feel listened to are miserable. This is absolutely crushing to team and individual morale. People quit their jobs because of this type of dynamic, it's so detrimental to innovation, making good decisions, engagement, retention, performance, etc.

So how do you fix unconscious bias? Here’s three ways to start.

  1. Education. Have conversations, develop awareness, and providing training on unconscious bias. Here is a wonderful article from Forbes by Dr. Pragya Agarwal that discusses a number of different types of unconscious and implicit biases that can show up and wreak havoc in organizations. This a great resource to share with hiring managers and your team to spark this conversation around biases at work.

  2. Changing practices. Take steps to change processes. Train your hiring managers and recruiters around unconscious bias. When a role opens up, create a very clear description and list of skills and abilities needed for that role, and hire based on those qualities. Hold more consistent, structured interviews - make sure each candidate receives the same set of questions and process. Additionally, make sure to include a more diverse hiring panel instead of just filtering candidates through one person. Examine the processes you have in place throughout your company and look for ways to combat bias.

  3. Developing a stronger lens around inclusivity & unconscious bias. As an employee or member of a team, be more aware of and responsible for your behavior and take more ownership for how you show up and interact with your team. Be intentional about not creating situations and dynamics that are exclusive to specific individuals or groups of people.

More Resources: 

This article was created by keynote speaker Galen Emanuele for the #shiftyestribe. Free leadership and team culture content centered on a new focus every month. Check out the rest of this month's content and subscribe to the Shift Yes Tribe at