Leadership Diversity & Inclusion

How do you challenge bias?

Without knowing or realising, we may do or say something that can make our colleagues feel unwelcome or excluded. This is known as unconscious bias.

Although it is hard to admit, we all do it. However once we are aware of our own biases, we can begin to interrupt and make changes. Here’s how you can transform yourself.

"relying on snap decisions about someone can be very harmful"

Our brains are hardwired to make unconscious decisions. The number of choices we face every day would be overwhelming if we had to consciously evaluate every single one. This means we rely on snap judgements and stereotypes to simplify the information surrounding us. These judgements are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Our snap decisions are useful in certain situations. If you saw someone run onto the road as you were driving, for example, you wouldn’t take time to think about what to do, you would make a snap decision and use the brake.

However, relying on snap decisions about people can be very harmful.

We often make quick assessments on people based on things such as age, gender, disability, attractiveness, race or accent, among many other criteria.

At work, these unconscious assessments can lead to certain groups being excluded from opportunities and experiences they are qualified for.

Research shows that this leads to associating women with family over work, associating minority ethnic employees with more junior roles, assuming disabled employees are less productive and believing that older people have less to offer.

We may also make quick judgements about customers which affect how we treat them.

Take a minute to question yourself, have you ever made any of these assumptions?

These harsh and untrue assumptions lead to problems such as hiring the same kinds of candidates, unfair talent reviews, less recognition for ideas and fewer opportunities for mentoring promotion.

It is hard to admit we are doing this because we all like to think we are unprejudiced, inclusive and objective. However no one is immune from bias.

These types of bias are unconscious, so of course they often don’t match our consciously held beliefs.

However, once we become aware of our biases and accept that they are harmful, our unconscious ‘tips’ into the conscious, and we can begin to join together to make changes.

Biases are hard to eliminate however they are not as difficult to interrupt.

Here are five ways to interrupt bias on a daily basis:

Slow down. Make more measured decisions so you do not have to rely on the immediate unconscious evaluation. Pay particular attention to your choices when you are feeling tired, rushed or stressed, as these situations tend to activate our biases.

Base decisions on facts and competencies, not opinions. Always use the competencies for the job/promotion and objectively score the individual on these. Keep records and notes so you can check the facts behind your opinions. If you know that an individual has personal challenges, make your decision purely on competency and experience. Additionally, ensure there is diversity amongst the hiring/promotion team, to avoid hiring the same types of employees.

Speak up. Don’t be afraid to challenge people when you see bias in their behaviour. If you hear someone arguing against a woman’s promotion because she is not ‘seen as a leader’, even though it is common knowledge that her team produces outstanding results, take the initiative. Point out that her team delivers great results, which highlights her leadership skills and suitability for the promotion.

Question yourself. Get into the habit of questioning your assumptions: “Why am I thinking this way?” “Is my decision based on facts?” “What evidence do I have?” “Have I invited anyone to challenge my decision/view?”

Widen your network. Work with a more diverse range of people, for example through committees or mentoring those from a different background to you. This will broaden your understanding of others and improve your cultural competence.

Ready to make changes and challenge bias? Here are some additional tools!

  • Try LeanIn.org’s 50 Ways to Fight Bias, a toolkit to address gender bias head-on through short videos and a digital card deck.
  • Contact your region’s Diversity Team – they can provide you with more information.

by Manaalee Trivedi

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