Leadership Wellbeing Employee Development Diversity & Inclusion Career Progression

What is affinity bias and what to do about it

Affinity bias is the natural tendency to gravitate towards people who are most like us. As a result, this generally also means that we also naturally distance ourselves from others whom we perceive as different. In consequence, those belonging to minority groups – whether race, sexual orientation or social background – are more likely to struggle to find the support and opportunities to progress in their careers.

Even women – who are not a minority – can be affected by affinity bias when they work in a male-dominated environment, which today continues to be the majority of work places.

The effect is often self-perpetuating, so unless we choose to actively challenge this bias, we cannot expect to improve.

If you belong to multiple minority groups, this can increase the perception of difference and have an even more serious impact on career development and progression. This means, for example, that affinity bias especially impacts women of colour.

The tricky thing with biases is that we might not know we have them. 

Research indicates that the human brain may be presented with 11 million pieces of information at any given time – however we are only able to consciously process about 40. 

We rely on mental shortcuts to help us, but how do we know what information our brains might be sifting, without us being aware? 

There are a few things we can all do, to try to discover if we do suffer from any unconscious affinity bias. 

So what can we do to identify affinity bias and challenge it? 

Look around yourself – and try to measure this objectively. 

Make a list of 10 of your most trusted colleagues or friends at work.  What percentage are the same gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or social background?  Is it truly representative of society, or does it perhaps reflect some affinity biases? 

Look at the people you have chosen to connect with – people you have recruited, or informally mentor.  How diverse are they?

If the results of this self-analysis aren’t quite what you hoped for, it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, you just need to take action to counteract this unconscious bias.  The harder you find it to admit to your biases, the more difficult it may be to actually change.  Try to resist rationalising the results, with justifications such as “I just feel more at ease with x”, “we have more in common”, or “they just ‘get’ our work ethic here”. 

It can be easy to convince yourself that you are right, and everyone else needs to change, instead of recognising and taking steps to change your own perspective.

Make an effort to connect with a wider range of people, including minority groups.  Choose to mentor a female, and/or someone of BAME background.  Next time you have to choose between two equally qualified applicants for a position, instead of asking “who will fit in best?”, ask “who will make our team more diverse?”

Research consistently shows that diverse teams perform better.  Diversity is a goal worth fighting for, so don’t let your unconscious mind drive your decision making.  Awareness of affinity bias can be an important step towards building a more inclusive team.

Visit Hive Learning and the Lean In Organisation websites to find out more about affinity bias

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