Are You Biased at Work?

ThinkerSorry to be so blunt, but it turns out that you are biased! And that we all are! We tend to recruit people like us and are generally more likely to see the good in people like us. Extroverts tend to take an immediate liking of other extroverts etc.

But I’m not just talking about biases in terms of age, class, gender or psychometrics. Our unconscious biases run deep. An experiment was done that showed that job applicants were more favourably received if they had the same birth date as the interviewer!

Biases are simply preferences. They are stories we make up about people before we know who they really are.

There are good reasons why we have biases. Our brain needs to keep us safe. We are bombarded with millions of signals all the time and our brain can only cope with processing a few at a time. We fill in gaps and make assumptions. We need to make quick decisions. Is the other person ok or not?

Daniel Kahneman makes the point clearly about our tendency to think quickly (and get things wrong!) in his book Thinking Fast & Slow. Here’s a question he poses:

If a bat and ball cost $1.10 and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Most people do a quick calculation and say the ball costs 10 cents.This is clearly wrong!

Different Types of Bias

There are several types of bias, but here are three important ones to consider:

  • Affinity bias – our natural bias towards those who we see as being ‘like us’, naturally excluding others as a consequence. They become part of our ‘in-group’
  • Confirmation bias – protects and strengthens our beliefs giving us reason to continue believing our own thoughts. Once we think someone else is good we can then think that everything that person does is good (the so-called halo effect)
  • Benevolent bias – we want to be kind and make decisions on others’ behalf, thereby not giving others a choice

If you’d like to tune into the realms of unconscious bias, a good place to start is to consider your current levels of awareness. Here are some ways of doing an internal audit:

  • Consider things your parents told you when you were young. Any ‘you should do this…’ or ‘you should do that…etc?’
  • Review your early experiences at work. Any memories of ‘this is how to write a good email…’ or ‘this is how to behave in a meeting…’ etc?
  • Consider what values you hold as to what is good or bad behaviour.

Next, you might explore your own biases about certain people or groups in more depth. Ask yourself:

  • What assumptions are you making about these people?
  • What effect might these assumptions have on your approach to these people and your leadership style?

The next step is to question your beliefs. For example, you may harbour a belief that part-time workers are not committed to their careers, or that working mothers may be less available for short notice travel. Such beliefs can lead to behaviour that disadvantages some over others.”

Wrapping up I’d like to consider why this is such an important issue.  I think it’s because it has been shown in various studies (see below) that diversity is good for many different reasons:

  • improved client service – with a more diverse workforce you’ll be more able to recognise the diverse needs of your client teams
  • more innovation – to be innovative you need the different ideas and perspectives from a wider range of people
  • better recruitment and retention – a more diverse culture will attract a wider range of talent who will want to stay

We probably can’t ever become bias-free. But we can look out for them and try to compensate. When recruiting, considering promotions or giving bonuses pair up with somebody who is different to you.

I’m indebted to Helen Krag of People Development Team for these insights given at a Sherwood Consulting informal lunch for clients. Helen’s latest blog deals with four challenges to address for greater diversity in law firms.”

For further reading, there are dozens of research studies on the importance of diversity. Here is a selection:


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