Every day we are faced with hundreds of choices composed of millions of variables. It's entirely unfathomable to contemplate them all. So, to help us sift through the influx of possibilities and fill in the gaps, our brains tap into our unconscious minds for guidance to circumvent the vast decision tree of life.
Our unconscious mind is a repository of past experiences that includes things like our perceptions, intuition, and subliminal desires. Although these influences rarely reach our conscious minds, they play a significant role in governing our decisions.
It's been estimated that we are exposed to roughly eleven million bits of information at any given moment. However, our brains can only consciously manage about forty of those eleven million (that's right FORTY). In other words, the vast majority of information is filtered through a perceptual lens that is driven by our unconscious mind.
However, if left unmanaged, we could unintentionally disregard information and make decisions based on irrational thoughts -- AKA biases.
Everyone is subject to bias. It's a subliminal response to mitigating fears, protecting ourselves, and is a result of years of conditioning and associations. But, to ensure we're making the best decisions we possibly can (especially people decisions), we have to make sure we're objective and consider all the facts before drawing conclusions.
Here are four different ways that you can beat bias from Dr. Brian Welle, a member of Google's People Analytics team:
1. Structure for success.
Where there is a lack of structure in a system, there is more room for bias. To hedge your risks, make sure to articulate expectations and clarify requirements. Especially when defining what success looks like in a role, what constitutes a successful interview, or what warrants an exceptional performance review.
The more structured a process is, the easier it will be to remain objective in your decision making.
2. Collect data.
If the first step is to admit that you have a problem, then the next is to find out where the issue is occurring. The only way to address potential biases is to measure them from the start. If you haven't already, invest in tools to track your people data. This could include organizational demographics, performance metrics, and interview feedback.
Also, use this data to drive process training and decision making. To squeeze out unconscious bias, use all the information available to help alleviate ambiguity.
3. Evaluate subtle messages.
Even the smallest details can send indirect messages to potential candidates and employees. For example, are your recruiting materials truly representative of your workforce and do they emphasize diversity? What about your office decor -- does it send a message of openness and inclusion? Which employees are frequently promoted and praised within your organization?
I've been in offices where all the managers' doors were shut, that very were sterile with no warm or welcoming decor, and ones that projected a very masculine energy.
Unfortunately, many organizations are unaware of the subtle messages they're sending and are unintentionally being exclusive.
4. Hold everyone accountable.
There is a way to make the unconscious conscious. However, it requires that you create an awareness around bias and hold everyone accountable. First, let's take a look at a few of the biases that directly impact the workplace via UNC Kenan-Flagler's Program Director of Executive Development, Horace McCormick, Jr.:
- Affinity bias - The tendency to gravitate towards people who remind us of ourselves.
- Halo effect - The tendency to always see someone in a positive light because of their title or because you like them.
- Perception bias - The tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups that make objective decision making impossible.
- Confirmation bias - The tendency for people to only seek out information that confirms their preexisting beliefs or assumptions.
- Group-think - The tendency for people to go along with the group rather than voicing their individual thoughts and beliefs.
Alright, now that you're aware of the types of biases in the workplace, it's time to hold people accountable. On an individual basis, Google suggests that managers give themselves a moment before making a final decision. This "breather" gives them a chance to question their impressions and justify their rationale.
One of the easiest ways to force yourself into doing this is to write things down and to ask others for feedback before drawing any conclusions.
On an organizational level, Google creates a bias-busting culture by providing awareness training, encouraging employees to call out potential bias issues, and suggesting that employees consider diverse perspectives and come to a collective decision.
Diversity is a huge competitive advantage that will be stymied if organizations don't address unconscious bias in the workplace.