The Neuroleadership Institute (NLI) is blunt. If you have a brain, you have a bias. Bias isn’t an eradicable fault in our minds. It’s a feature, but not one we manage well in all circumstances.
Below are a few quotes from a NLI article by Komai Gulati from 2020. I’ll come back to this article later.
“Evolutionarily, biases act as adaptive processes that allow us to use prior knowledge and experiences to inform our decisions and actions in the present.”
“Unfortunately, in our modern world, not all biases serve to benefit us and those around us. In fact, when left untethered, biases can seep into hiring, promotion, feedback, and management and lead to poor decision-making and sub-optimal working environments.”
“For leaders, it’s important to learn to mitigate that bias before it negatively impacts decision-making and work environments.”
Let’s adapt that last quote:
“For decision-makers, it’s important to learn to mitigate that bias before it negatively impacts decision-making and work environments.”
What a difference a meaning makes
Mitigate – Verb – make (something bad) less severe, serious, or painful (Oxford English Dictionary – OED).
It is unfortunate that a well-intended use of a word can undo a positive line of thought. What is to be mitigated is not bias per se but inappropriately applied bias.
How do we know when a bias is inappropriately applied? When we have an obligation to be fair and impartial we are at risk. Unfortunately, one of our inherent survival-oriented biases leads us to over-estimate any of our abilities, and this includes our assessment of our ability to be fair and impartial. We can, and will, sincerely believe we are being unbiased when, in fact, we are not.
This doesn’t mean we have to live in fear and loathing of biases. They are our friends in many situations – mostly when our personal interests are legitimately being served. In fact, without these functional biases, we might be incapable of timely and effective action.
When we accept that bias is our default mode, we can employ reflective assessments to determine when our employer’s interests might be impeded by our biases. Our employer’s interests and our interests do not naturally intersect at all times.
One interest is a prohibition against discrimination that affects both public and private sector organisations.
Discrimination has two important meanings. Many years ago, it meant only “recognition and understanding the difference between one thing and another.” (OED) Now we mostly understand it to mean “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people” (OED).
What has happened in this evolution of meaning is that we have condensed our expression to remove the word ‘inappropriate’ as a qualifier of the original idea of discrimination. Being discriminating used to be a good thing, because it meant discerning or selective in a positive way.
We can be biased in ways that serve our personal needs in what we think is a good way, but which violate our employer’s anti-discrimination obligations. The easiest way to understand this is to look at our natural tendency to prefer people who are like us. That is perfectly fine in our private lives, and out of line when we are acting as employees making decisions as a representative of the organisation we work for.
Don’t choose alone
Recruitment is rife with bias. Selection panels are often assembled by the hiring manager who might have activated their preference for people like themselves, and so have ended up with 3-4 people with a similar bias potential on their selection panel.
The solution is to intentionally ensure that decisions (recruitment or otherwise) are not made in isolation (as one person or a group thinking alike), but in company that can bring diverse perspectives to bear on the decision-making process.
This will not eliminate bias leading to inappropriate factors being considered in discriminating (choosing) between options (like which candidate to hire), but it dilutes the risk.
On a personal level, self-reflective awareness of the risk of a bias being misapplied in certain settings is essential. But if decision-making is shared among a diverse group of equally self-aware colleagues the quality of decision making is elevated.
Understanding bias better.
NLI’s has done great research on unconscious bias and has condensed 150+ biases into five key bias groups that are reflected in NLI’s SEEDS Model®:
- Similarity: The tendency to view people who look or think like us more favorably than people who are different
- Expedience: The tendency to rush to conclusions in an effort to minimize cognitive effort
- Experience: The tendency to believe that how we see the world is inherently truer than someone else’s perspective
- Distance: The tendency to assign greater value to those things that we perceive to be closer to us, rather than further away
- Safety: The tendency to over-account for negative outcomes instead of positive ones
These bias groups are the foundation of our personal unconscious processes for dealing with our lived reality. They are not objective, but we can use them effectively when we are acting on behalf of people who share our worldview. The problem comes when the people impacted by our decision-making don’t share our worldview, and they expect us to embrace their worldviews in our deliberations. This is an obligation to be inclusive.
Complexity, diversity and pluralism
Our culture, and the communities within it, has been evolving rapidly over the last 60 years. Anti-discrimination legislation places obligations upon organisations to make fairer choices in workplaces that continue to grow more and more diverse.
This means that an obligation to be less biased is now more urgent than it was in the 1960s. Under the pressure of such a level of change we can feel under threat. Biases are survival strategies that must adapt as the environment changes. When we feel under threat we are more likely to rely on our biases.
If we understand biases as cognitive shortcuts, we can understand that what is important is not that we exercise biases but whether our biases are adapted to our current environment and in service of our goals and values.
If we do not agree with the broader tend toward greater diversity, we will activate our present biases against that trend. This must be a conscious choice – to adapt or not. If we choose to adapt, we must accept that there is a cognitive burden we must bear as we intentionally change our goals and values to align with the larger cultural trend.
Biases are a legacy of earlier evolutionary responses – choices became unconscious and automatic because they proved to be beneficial (to individuals, to families, to tribes, to communities, to cultures). For an adaptive response to the current evolution of our culture to eventually become equally unconscious we must do intentional work on our self-awareness. We must change how we behave intentionally.
The NLI article sums up the situation neatly:
“As today’s (organisations) are making a genuine effort to address the biases prevalent in their workplaces, research shows that simply acknowledging the existence of bias is not enough to prevent its negative effects. To that end, NLI offers a three-step process for reducing the effects of bias: Accept, Label, Mitigate.”
“Biases form the invisible lens through which we all subconsciously see the world. Accepting your own biases, as well as others’, involves understanding that bias is a natural, inevitable part of human cognition — not unique to you, your (organisation), or your employees. Labelling bias using the SEEDS Model® makes it easy to adopt a shared language to call out bias in respectful and meaningful ways.”
Bias is perhaps the greatest barrier to disability inclusion, and it is often mistaken as a fault to be eliminated rather than a reflex to be evolved. It is therefore critically important that people with disability have a clear understanding of what they are trying to change.
I encourage the reader to visit The Neuroleadership Institute’s website to explore the array of ideas on bias and diversity, equity and inclusion. I have no connection with NLI. Their content on bias is just the best I have seen.