Understanding Bias Is Essential to Inclusion

At a basic level, any diversity and inclusion conversation invites self-reflection. It requires acceptance of the possibility that there is a non-level playing field and something needs to change. For many, this introspection creates guilt and defensiveness. Thus the D&I conversation has been challenging in the following ways:

• It has focused on the bad behaviors of primarily white heterosexual men.

• There is resistance to the idea that discriminatory behavior is happening, particularly if there is an assumption that it is intentional.

• Defensiveness gets tapped, born out of cognitive dissonance created when well-intended people are asked to accept that they were treating others unfairly.

People believe in a meritocracy — a system in which people get ahead due to their ability and skill. Challenging that means challenging an entire belief system. Most don’t like thinking that they are a part of and contributing to an unfair system – that they and the system itself might be biased. It is dissonant with personal and societal values of fairness and equal opportunity.

This has been the undercurrent of much of the D&I work of the last 30 years. Thus, much of the energy in training programs and consulting engagements has focused on trying to manage guilt and defensiveness that resulted from trying to convince leaders that there was a problem and that they were a part of it. Today, the challenge is the same but it can be framed differently, in a way that doesn’t generate so much guilt and defensiveness.

To do so, it helps to understand the nature of bias itself. A modern understanding of bias holds that:

Bias is ever-present, unavoidable and human. Even when the intention is to be inclusive, perceptions that sit in the unconscious brain often rule the day when it comes to decision making.

Much of the time biases are not only unintentional, but also unconscious. Unconscious impressions are formed quickly; more quickly than the process of conscious reasoning.

Unconscious bias translates into behavior. Bias translates into behavior, both at the interpersonal and the organizational level. These biases affect everything from first impressions to employment decisions. It is impossible to separate bias from behavior unless that bias is made conscious.

Bias affects performance. Not only does bias result in less than optimal decisions, it also affects performance in a more indirect way. When strong talent is not developed due to bias, performance suffers.

The Functional Side of Bias

It should be said that bias is not only normal, it is also helpful. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes “thin slicing” as the ability to tap the vast information stored in our unconscious brain and use it to make quick and effective decisions. This capability is an important human capability.

But, it has a downside when it comes to inclusion. Our gut instincts, first impressions and feelings of comfort are often the bases – and biases – by which we build relationships at work. What is held in our unconscious brain about groups of people often includes stereotypes; stereotypes that we would consciously reject but unconsciously still hold. It is part of the data stored on the hard drive in our unconscious brain.

Bias Is a Level Playing Field … in Some Ways

All human beings develop and carry biases. Their age, gender, race or sexual orientation does not matter. In this way, all humans are equal. The impact of bias, though, is not equal. It lands more heavily on groups that have been traditionally discriminated against because there are many more majority group members in key decision-making positions. Their decisions, and thus biases, have more weight and there are more of them; bias gets embedded in organizational culture, and organizational cultural biases reflect the biases of the groups who have created or run organizations. This is called systemic bias. So, bias is a level playing field, but not in its impact.

Tips to Managing the Impact of Bias?

Bias cannot be eliminated. It is human nature to be biased. However, we can take measures to raise individual and organizational awareness of bias. The goal is to manage its impact on corporate policies and management decision making. Here’s how to do it:

Invest in leadership development: Initial unconscious bias development can be broad based, but a greater ROI is achieved when it has a specific application. For example, focus on how unconscious bias impacts your talent interviewing and selection process or your employee reviews and rewards or even how it pertains to your client relationships.

Change your experiences: Exposing yourself to different groups and environments will challenge your biases. If you are straight, join the LGBT employee resource group as an ally. If you are white, join one or more of the employee affinity groups focused on race and ethnicity. The interactions may feel uncomfortable at first, but the opportunities will allow you to expand your experiences.

Self-assess: Take a personal inventory of the individuals on your team. With whom do you feel most comfortable or have the best rapport? Write out their similarities and differences. Compare this list to yourself. Ask yourself uncomfortable questions. Were they promoted or hired because they were the best for the job or more due to how you felt about them? Do you have a preference for male or female managers or staff? Why?

It’s About the Future, Not the Past

The debate about bias is over. Bias is a part of being human. The issue is no longer whether people are biased, but more about how to increase awareness of how bias impacts organizations and what can be done about it. The focus needs to shift to how to reduce the impact of bias both individually and organizationally. This work can create sustainable change.

Mark Kaplan is chief consultant at The Dagoba Group, a global diversity and inclusion consultancy. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.