Bias Begins With Self-Identity

No matter what leaders think they are saying when they speak, their facial expressions, tone of voice, hand gestures, choice of words and questions may communicate something entirely different because of their identity bias. Individuals may be biased at an unconscious level to identify with people like them, which influences decision making in ways of which they are unaware. To a certain extent, it is ordinary to have these sentiments, but stereotyping results in discrimination when leaders rely on preconceived notions in making decisions that impact their diverse workforces.

Natalie Holder-Winfield, founder and president of QUEST Diversity Initiatives, a compliance and talent management training consultancy, and author of Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce: New Rules for a New Generation, said that co-workers with inherent similarities and connections are much more inclined to establish richer relationships and help each other. “This is an identity bias that occurs because we want to have conversations that are much more comfortable and common to us,” she said.

While this is expected, it’s destructive, according to Holder-Winfield. Because of it, many women and minorities are pushed away as white men continue to get better access to informal and formal mentoring. Senior while male executives may identify with junior-level white men because they are reminders of their more youthful days or their children. For this reason, they choose to develop the portion of the subordinate staff that mirrors their experiences, stifling diversity.

As evidence for her argument, Holder-Winfield points to an article titled “Common Ground and Cultural Prominence: How Conversation Reinforces Culture” by Nathanael J. Fast, Chip Heath and George Wu. In their research, conducted in 2009, the authors found people are most likely to talk about things they think they have in common with others, rather than topics or ideas that are more unusual or striking. To investigate their hypothesis that conversations between people seeking common ground can influence which ideas and people gain cultural prominence, the authors performed studies centered on professional baseball.

In the first experiment, the researchers paid subjects who did not know each other to discuss baseball players. Participants were given a choice to either talk about more familiar players who had mediocre seasons or discuss less familiar players who had high-performing seasons. Study participants were given the names and performance metrics — batting averages and number of home runs — of a subset of major league baseball players so they wouldn’t have to depend on memory to know how successful a season a given player was having. Familiar players — even those with mediocre seasons — were more prominently discussed because they provided common ground for the conversation. The authors contended that this finding has business ramifications as it can impact the cultures that emerge in organizations.

“The only way [to] chip away at this unconscious identity bias that all of us have is getting into environments where we interact with people who don’t look like us [and] don’t sound like us; people who force us to break down our assumptions about what kind of experiences people who don’t look like us or don’t remind us of ourselves will have,” Holder-Winfield said.

This type of bias is often perceived as a microinequity. A microinequity is a gesture, different kind of language or treatment in which individuals are either singled out, overlooked, ignored or otherwise discounted based on an unchangeable characteristic.

“Microinequities are like beach erosion,” Holder-Winfield said. “Their impact is felt and seen over time. Because microinequities are so subtle, they are often consciously ignored by the person on the receiving end. The recipient of microinequities often thinks that they are making a big deal out of nothing. However, over the course of time, microinequities can lead this person into feeling silenced, ignored or frustrated.”

As former senior vice president and chief diversity officer at JPMorgan Chase, Stephen Young, senior partner of Insight Education Systems and author of Micromessaging: Why Great Leadership is Beyond Words, has made a career out of microinequities he felt while serving as vice president for diversity with Merrill Lynch’s private client division. Young created several platforms to get rid of microinequities at JPMorgan Chase and has since developed programs for executives to focus on how they send messages across businesses, borders and cultures. He instructs participants on how to drive rapid behavior change and incorporate these skills into the realm of routine workplace interactions because this is where he thinks great leadership and true diversity and inclusion is heading.

“For the most part, no one is doing the big, stupid things anymore; the elephants are under control, it’s the ants we have to be concerned about,” Young said. “It’s the subtle messages that devalue, discourage and impair people’s performance. A single microinequity isn’t something to be concerned about — it’s just a drop. But these drops turn into consistent, very slow, unnoticed drops that drip and then dry and become unnoticed over time that form rust on people’s performance. You cannot be a great leader if you only lead a select few.”

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at