Entrepreneurs' Organization's purpose is to help entrepreneurs achieve their full potential by enabling life-enhancing connections, designing shared experiences and providing collaborative learning. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, author, and EO 360° podcast guest, empowers leaders to avoid business disasters by maximizing unexpected opportunities and resolving persistent personnel problems. We asked him to explain how unconscious bias influences discriminatory behavior and how entrepreneurs can overcome it. Here's what he told us:
Unconscious bias can affect your company in a significantly negative way--resulting in poor people decisions around hires and promotions, and even in the vendors and partners you choose. How can entrepreneurs defeat unconscious bias? First, let's define what it is.
Unconscious bias (also called implicit bias) is an unconscious form of discrimination and stereotyping that is based on gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, ability or age. It's different than cognitive bias, a predictable pattern of perceptive errors that result in a misunderstanding of reality. Falling for a cognitive bias lowers the probability of getting what you want.
Cognitive biases are commonplace because they relate to the particular wiring of the human brain. In contrast, unconscious bias is also common, but it pertains to our perceptions between different groups and is specific to the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don't care whether someone is a commoner or a noble, yet that distinction was fundamental across Europe a few centuries ago.
When I speak to groups of people about eliminating unconscious bias and other unconscious discriminatory behaviors detrimental to diversity and inclusion, I share that it's common to see unconscious bias in recruitment. Take, for example, an entrepreneurial start-up with 80 employees that provides businesses with video and email marketing services. The company's senior leadership approached me to coach their managerial and HR staff on recruitment practices to address unconscious bias.
During our initial Zoom coaching session, as participants described their existing hiring process, I stumbled upon a common--and counterproductive--pattern. Despite processes in place to ensure that discriminatory behavior would be avoided, the company's hiring managers often relied on gut instincts when making decisions.
This results in a workplace that isn't diverse and inclusive. It eventually promotes people with the same profiles to leadership positions--who will then make similar hiring decisions, thereby fortifying a self-reinforcing loop.
It happens because most employers tend to decide with their guts instead of their heads and hire people they like and perceive as part of their in-group, instead of basing decisions on applicants' qualifications. While there are certain situations where relying on gut instinct makes sense, it's a bad idea when hiring or promoting employees.
In this common scenario, unconscious bias manifests when recruiters and hiring managers pick candidates who are similar to them in race, gender and socioeconomic background. It can even extend to minor things such as speaking and gesture styles or clothing choices. Our gut automatically differentiates the people who can be part of our in-group due to their similarity to us, and this raises their status in our eyes. Hiring managers who heed this instinct are giving in to unconscious bias, as I explained to the coaching participants.
However, I was careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Internal norms, policies and training procedures can perpetuate such a culture. Any company wishing to defeat unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than attributing discriminatory behavior to individual employees.
Taking decisive steps to address unconscious bias
I repeatedly emphasize that there is no shame or blame in unconscious bias, as it doesn't stem from a fault in any particular individual. This no-shame approach makes my audiences less defensive and helps them hear and accept this issue.
Still, in the case of the start-up company, I received feedback that unconscious bias was still an issue, even after two coaching sessions. Several participants didn't internalize the evidence presented to them. It was much more comforting for them to feel that their gut instinct was right, and they were reluctant to follow processes that avoid discriminatory behavior.
The idea of unconscious bias didn't agree with their intuitions. Thus, they rejected the concept, despite robust evidence for how it negatively impacts the hiring process and workplace diversity.
It took a series of subsequent follow-up conversations and interventions to move the needle. A single training is seldom sufficient, both according to research and in my experience.
This example of how to eliminate unconscious bias illustrates wider patterns you must address to defeat unconscious bias and make ideal people choices. After all, our gut reactions result in poor judgments.
Four steps to defeat unconscious bias
Here are four steps to defeat unconscious bias in your company:
- Conduct some research to learn about the types of problems that unconscious bias can cause, so that you understand what you're trying to address.
- Explain to employees, or any other group you want to influence, that there is no guilt or shame in acknowledging our instincts.
- Convey the dangers associated with following intuition or "gut feelings," to build up an emotional investment into changing behaviors.
- Finally, share the ideal mental habits that will help them make the best choices.
Remember, a one-time training is insufficient for changing this deep-seated and unintentional bias. It takes a long-term commitment, constant discipline and ongoing effort to overcome unconscious bias.