Biases are deeply ingrained, non-conscious drivers that heavily influence every decision or judgment we make. They help keep us alive and help us make quick decisions efficiently and stop us repeating dangerous behaviours. But biases can also prevent us from considering new information and trying other options or behaviours. Arguably our brains are designed to make us biased, because we’re biologically hardwired to align with people like us and reject those whom we consider different.
Traditionally we’ve approached this through training. A workshop where we learn about beliefs and assumptions and how they drive our biases. Then we’re asked to leave that course and try hard to go against our long-held beliefs – but we don’t have conscious access to the operations of bias in the brain. Knowing about bias isn’t enough, we also need to actively deploy strategies to reduce its effect. Otherwise all we have are people aware of their own biases, but without the ability to do anything about it!
So I believe we need to address both raising people’s awareness of their own unconscious biases, and give them ways to transfer that awareness to their decisions and processes. Partly awareness, partly behavioural and partly process changes.
For some people the phrase “Unconscious bias” turns them off and I know I’ve lost them already. So I often talk about how you make decisions instead of biases, and use two of the Harrison Paradoxes to illustrate this.
The Opinions Paradox looks at how an individual explores different viewpoints rather than being fixed to their own opinion. To mitigate personal biases (that are hardwired into us), we learn to explore other people’s opinions and viewpoints before we form our own opinions. This is different to simply agreeing with other peoples’ opinions which could be formed by their personal biases. Finding the balance between our own opinions and exploring other people’s opinions is the key here.
Opinions are usually formed before we make decisions, so I then talk about the Delegation Paradox too. This considers whether you have a tendency to allow others to genuinely participate in the decision-making process, before making your own decisions. Again, this can mitigate against personal biases by being introduced to alternative information before your decision is made.
Let’s apply both of these to a hiring decision which may be one of the easier areas to see how biases could impact on our decisions. It’s most effective to have a Hiring Manager who genuinely takes input from other people also involved in the hiring process before forming their opinions on a candidate and then making a hiring decision.
Take Lord Sugar on the Apprentice. He collects data about his candidates through a series of exercises. He forms opinions about their performance. But most importantly, he takes input and advice from Karen and Claude about the candidates’ performance. They have followed the candidates closely and add a further level of detail to Lord Sugar’s observations. After taking advice, Lord Sugar forms his opinions and makes a decision. Classic examples of the paradoxes in action!
So we have acknowledged that we all have unconscious biases, and we’ve identified some underlying traits that may help us mitigate the risk of those biases. We now also need to identify points in our working lives where biases could show up in our decisions. By systematically thinking about places where decisions are made, we can then re-engineer the processes with our new awareness of biases.
This way we have:
- Increased our awareness of biases
- Identified traits to develop to manage our biases
- Identified potential process changes to mitigate the risk of bias
Hopefully I’ve shown that tackling unconscious bias starts with awareness – but shouldn’t end there. A workshop or training sessions can really help – but don’t stop there. Training and development alone doesn’t often bring about the changes you want to see. If we want to tackle something as deep rooted as biases and beliefs, think of it as an onion. With layers. Just without the tears….