Today is World Day for Cultural Diversity, for Dialogue and Development. It provides an opportunity to reflect on our understanding of the value of cultural diversity and the benefits of learning to “live together” better.
It’s also a good time to examine why ‘unconscious bias’ is one of the key reasons why diversity is often not achieved in the workplace.
The "unconscious" consists of the processes of the mind which occur automatically and are not available to introspection.
According to Professor Timothy Wilson’s studies and book “Strangers to ourselves”, we consciously process one piece of information for every 275,000 pieces of information we unconsciously process.
If we had to process all of the information that we encountered during a day, we would not be able to make any rational decisions as our brain would be overloaded!
Unconscious bias, therefore, happens as a result of our brain taking a short cut when faced with an option or decision, using our past knowledge to make assumptions to inform that decision. As individuals, our biases are influenced by a huge range of factors including our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
- How does unconscious bias impact decisions made in the workplace?
The Covid-19 crisis has in in some companies, thrown a light on long held negative assumptions around the ability of individuals, whole departments or in many cases whole businesses being able to productively and effectively work at home. Of course the experience of remote working has been hugely different across the range of companies and industries that have been thrown into conducting a real time experiment on managing their business and workforce in a very different way and before COVID-19, many employers and managers would not have entertained a request to work from home, purely on the basis of an unconscious bias against this way of working.
Most judgements and opinions we hold reflect an element of subjectivity, which is why unconscious bias can influence almost all of our decisions.
In the workplace, unconscious bias impacts:
- Attraction and recruitment
- Mentoring opportunities
- Assigning work
- Listening to ideas and suggestions.
- Performance reviews
- Determining policies
- Treatment of customers
If you’re hiring, promoting or giving more responsibilities to a specific individual based on ‘gut feeling,’ you’re likely doing so on the basis of unconscious bias. When you are under pressure or lacking time, your brain will try to make the decision making process easier for you and favour things you are familiar with or that you prefer on an unconscious level.
For instance, you might hire someone because they remind you of someone (due to their physical appearance or where they studied) that has already been successful in your company or to yourself.
- What would unconscious bias training achieve?
The objective of unconscious bias training is to raise awareness of biases in the workplace and should be designed to adjust automatic patterns of thinking, and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviours.
Imagine the kinds of things that would happen in the workplace if we lived in a world without unconscious bias!
- The best person for the job would be hired (according to a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, picking the right person for a job can lead to someone being up to 800 times more productive).
- People would be promoted solely as a result of performance.
- Employees would feel they are treated fairly and retention would rise (according to research undertook by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).
Overcoming unconscious bias is crucial to retaining and attracting great talent. A Glassdoor survey found that, nowadays, a company’ culture and ethics are more valued than salary.
IBM and MIT professors Thomas Malone and Patrick J. McGovern have been studying innovation and collective intelligence. They realised that group intelligence is not equal to the combined intelligence of the individuals in the group, but instead, it is determined by each individual's different thought processes, their different social backgrounds and the proportion of women within the group.
According to a Forbes study, a diverse set of experiences and perspectives is crucial to
innovation and the development of new ideas. Hiring employees that are able to challenge each other will not only boost productivity but will also give your company a competitive edge. According to McKinsey & Company research, companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Aside from these enormous benefits, removing unconscious bias in the workplace would remove the risk to employers of expensive discrimination claims.
If your business is interested in exploring the benefits of addressing unconscious bias in the workplace please get in touch to discuss how our training can your business on its journey to a sustainable future.