Beating unconscious bias in the workplace

The charge to embrace diversity and inclusiveness across the corporate sector is on high alert. Organisations are recognising that opening up the playing field is essential for the advancement of our radically changing community and for the future success of our businesses.

Author and Deloitte Human Capital Partner, Juliet Bourke says that in order for leaders to make great decisions, they must first diversify their thinking—yet this is not possible without overcoming unconscious bias.

In her recent book Which Two Heads Are Better Than One?, Bourke urges corporate and HR leaders to examine the myriad of ways that unconscious bias interferes with empathy and extending understanding to different points of view.

She advised that diversity of thinking requires leaders to collate new groups of people who are visibly different. Diversity needs to be something that is actionable, not conceptual. It is only when a workplace includes diverse viewpoints that the overall culture can shift.

McKinsey and Company research revealed that gender-diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to outperform on financial expectations, while ethnically diverse companies have a 35 per cent likelihood to outperform expectations.

The concept of unconscious bias plays a significant role and threat to workplace diversity. Unconscious bias covers the gamut of emotions regarding perspectives of gender, race, age, weight and religion.

The unconscious bias

Unconscious biases emerge as a survival mechanism; it is easier for the brain to revert to type when it feels under threat or pressure. One clear example of this is the propensity for executives to hire people that are from very similar socioeconomic backgrounds to them. In the workplace of empire building, it is easier to stack your army with perceived like-minded troops, yet this is not always the case. As the Australian population radically shifts from both an ethnicity and age group standpoint, it will be harder to hire on a like-for-like basis.

Creating an inclusive environment

The way to develop diversity and eradicate unconscious bias is from the top down. It needs to be embraced by senior leaders and pushed by HR.

This is more delicate than it sounds as many executives are completely unaware of their filters. It is the role of HR professionals to educate executives, managers and the broader workforce as to how unconscious bias works—and offer mitigation tips to stop the triggers. When senior managers execute these strategies, a new standard is established for all employees to adopt.

Implementing strategies

Tackling unconscious bias takes effort, as Bourke mentions in her book. She offers four main strategies to mitigate cognitive depletion. ‘Executives need to have sufficient energy to engage with diversity and to resist the default setting of homogeneity,’ she writes.

She also suggests that leaders can conserve energy by using ‘nudges’, which trigger people to take the choice linked to an aspiration rather than decide based on a default setting. Structural nudges include work environments that encourage communal lunches or activities that promote socialisation.

Another way to combat bias is by examining  your ‘emotional settings’. When faced with a decision, regarding employment or appointments, leaders need to reflect on their emotional state before evaluating the external information and consider whether their mood is balanced and impartial.

Some questions to ask yourself as a leader include; am I feeling defensive and threatened? Am I curious and open-minded? Am I distracted or am I feeling comfortable?

‘Answers to each of these will help decision-makers to consider whether they are in the right frame of mind to hear and investigate divergent ideas, or more likely to seek confirmatory information,’ Bourke advises.

Here are the questions to ask about:

  • Compositional diversity: how can you create greater visible diversity?
  • The approach: are your group discussion techniques working to address problem-solving across the key areas of outcomes, options, risks, impact on people, evidence and process?
  • The diversity of empathy: are you aware of the way different people need varied communication?
  • Mitigate biases: is there an effective strategy in place that can mitigate against biases as soon as they are detected?
  • Information fatigue: have you set up ways to ease daily decision-making fatigue?
  • Inclusion: are you being loud enough to your team about the importance of inclusive behaviour?
  • Inclusive examples: are company leaders walking the inclusive talk? How can you develop that mindset?

Investing in an online Master of Human Resources Management can greatly assist in uncovering the issues that hinder workplace diversity and fast-track your expertise for creating inclusive organisations of the future.  To learn more, call an admissions manager today on 1300 701 171.