Biases are Innate
That unconscious bias is a real feature of human cognition is no longer a matter of dispute or doubt. A mountain of evidence has been accumulated on the existence and impact of subliminal processes below our active consciousness influencing our behaviour continuously. The evidence derives from improved psychological insights generated by the field of behavioural economics as well as increasingly sophisticated scientific data as to how electrical impulses flow through the brain (neuroscience). Moreover, the use and application of specialised and dedicated software tools designed to reveal unconscious biases has confirmed not merely that they exist but are also able to show where the biases of any individual and leadership team actually lie.
Biases lead to poor decisions
The practical implication of failing to acknowledge or address unconscious bias means that a high proportion of decisions will be made on the basis of incomplete, inaccurate or outright false data. And the consequences of biased decision-making can range from the inconvenient to the catastrophic, costing organisations billions of dollars. Working across the globe with leaders in order to identify examples of bias impacting on the quality of their decisions, Symmetra has collected dozens of examples. These include “pet projects” which should have been called off because they were not working ( new technology systems, new products etc.)-but were not due to the interest bias of the project leader, or “seasonal patterns” identified to explain a dramatic drop in revenue in a business by a leader where an objective assessment of the evidence would have indicated that the problem lay elsewhere.
Because unconscious biases are universal, two fallacies have arisen as to whether there is any point in trying to counteract them: The first fallacy is that because these biases operate below the level of our minute-to-minute awareness there is no way of impeding them. The second fallacy is that telling people that everyone is biased will lead to the conclusion that it is just a basic human frailty and therefore not objectionable. The fact of the matter is that we can indeed take steps to counteract mental processes that lead to less than ideal results, in just the same way that we can take protective measures against harmful physical responses to outside stimuli. The understanding and recognition that everyone harbours some unconscious bias is simply a first step to trying to moderate the harmful effects of the biases. It is not a tacit signal that biases are okay because we all have them.
Positive strategies for counteracting bias
Strategies for counteracting unconscious bias in organisations can follow two parallel streams. The first is by helping individual employees to recognise that they have biases and then introducing them to techniques which can inhibit the biases from controlling their decisions.
The second is at the organisational level, where systems or processes are created through recommended or mandatory procedures and structures so as to diffuse decision-making powers. The effect of this will be that the biases of a single person are less likely to be decisive. Research by Sunstein and Jolls (2006) demonstrates that unconscious bias is very hard to detect in one’s own thinking but easy to detect in another’s. Thus groups, and even more so diverse groups, are better at self- checking, identifying biases within themselves.
Leaders who labour under the impression that an education session alone on the topic of unconscious bias will address the issue effectively are unlikely to experience any transformational change in organisational culture. What is required is a well-tailored strategy which is comprehensive and sustained to instil proven techniques for counteracting unconscious bias.