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The Implications of Hidden Biases in today’s Work Environment

Category: Pro-Opinion, unconscious bias

Implications of Hidden Biases in today’s Work Environment

Most leaders would agree that it is not simply unfair but manifestly unwise to choose a CEO because of height, overlook a manager for promotion solely because he is overweight, or ignore an idea presented by a female colleague yet accept the very same proposal from a male colleague. Yet these are real and current examples of the way in which hidden biases emerge in human behaviour all too frequently – creating significant barriers to achieving the bias-free environments many of today’s employers seek to create.

Unified by a shared commitment to the power of diversity and inclusion, and a strong sense of purpose in creating opportunity and prosperity, EY and RBC have collaborated to explore the implications of hidden biases in today’s work environment. Guided by Dr. Banaji’s insights, these two organizations share practical, meaningful suggestions that can help overcome the implicit blindspots that limit human potential in our world.

The best leaders challenge the status quo and seek out the visionary thinking and broad perspectives that foster opportunity and growth. We have a responsibility to tackle the complex challenges that create barriers, limit creativity and blind us to the possibilities of our talent and our organizations. There has never been a better time to drive this change; never has it been so urgently necessary.

"When we empower the individual strengths, talents and unique perspectives of every person on our teams, we build deeper relationships, drive better decisions and achieve more meaningful results. As leaders, we have a responsibility to set the tone at the top so we can inspire and exemplify the workplace culture we want to cultivate. Each of us plays a part in weaving this mindset into the fabric of the workplace."
Trent Henry, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, EY Canada

The business case for diversity Savvy business leaders know that diverse teams are an important component of the innovation cycle required to thrive in today’s fast-evolving, increasingly global environment. Diversity has emerged as a business-critical factor in the ability to innovate, attract clients and partners, and retain and cultivate the best talent amidst a changing population and often unpredictable business conditions. More than simply reflecting our customers and the markets in which our businesses operate, inclusive leadership integrates a wide range of viewpoints to stimulate the creative thinking that generates better ideas, better products and dynamic problem-solving.

Plainly stated, diverse and inclusive teams make stronger teams, and strong teams make better business sense. Good intentions, mixed results while a growing number of organizations are working hard to implement programs and policies designed to foster a diverse and inclusive work environment, many are still struggling to reap the full benefit of this enlightened approach to organizational management. Their leaders are committed to developing the full range of talent in the organization, and invest financial and other organizational resources to do so. Yet in many cases, the efforts plateau, and leaders find themselves struggling to achieve the breakthroughs they genuinely seek for their organization, both internally and externally.

In a 2010 survey by EY, 53 per cent of business leaders agree that diversity in teams and experience improves both reputation and financial performance. (Globalization Survey 2010, as quoted in Winning in a Polycentric World, 2012.)

It is a distressing claim, one that tends to surprise those who are confronted by evidence that shows their behaviour is out of sync with their intentions. But research conducted by Dr. Banaji and her colleagues reveals that the human brain is hard-wired to make quick decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences without us even knowing it is doing so. This implicit or hidden system produces lightning-fast but often misguided generalizations while dismissing subtle but important distinctions. Ultimately, these unconscious predispositions shape the decisions we make by affecting the way we interpret information and how we evaluate and interact with people. Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji, an acclaimed social psychologist and professor of social ethics at Harvard University, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji has spent more than 30 years exploring the role of unconscious thinking and feeling in human behaviour. The global research she has undertaken with her colleagues at both Yale and Harvard Universities reveals robust evidence of the human brain’s ability to create “us” and “them” based preferences and stereotypes and the implications of hidden bias for organizational practices. With her co-author Anthony Greenwald, Dr. Banaji has recently co-published Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Hidden bias: what is it and where does it come from?

A hidden – or implicit – bias is a preference for or against a person, thing, or group held at an unconscious level. This means we don’t even know that our minds are holding onto this bias. In contrast, an overt – or explicit – bias is an attitude or prejudice that one endorses at a conscious level. Research on hidden bias reveals that in spite of the best intentions, most people harbour deep-seated resistance to the “different,” whether that difference is defined by such evident factors as race, gender, ethnicity, age or physical characteristics, or more subtle ones such as background, personality type or experiences. Bias can also exist in a positive sense. We may favour our family, our community and people with whom we feel a connection based on shared characteristics or experiences. These implicit biases are not deliberately or consciously created; they are products of our brain’s self-generated definition of normal, acceptable or positive, and they are shaped by many factors – from past experiences – to our local or cultural environment, to the influence of social community and media.

We don’t consciously construct these definitions of normal or different, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. In fact, implicit and explicit biases often diverge; our hidden biases may exist in spite of our genuine desire to be bias-free and in direct contradiction of the attitudes we believe we have. We’d like to believe we are open-minded, fair and without bias, but research shows otherwise. This is an important, even if uncomfortable, realization for most of us. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji

Hidden biases are neither a moral failing, nor a sign of a bad person. Most people have them. So it isn’t a matter of being ashamed or embarrassed — as long as we work to identify and overcome our unconscious attitudes and act differently. It starts with making the unconscious conscious. Zabeen Hirji, Chief Human Resources Officer, RBC

The impact of hidden bias in the workplace:
Left unaddressed, hidden biases have the power to derail our organization’s success. In the workplace, problems with our unconscious assumptions arise when we let them affect or shape the decisions we make in and on behalf of our organizations. Whether it is an inherent aversion to one group or an underlying preference for another, hidden biases can affect:

• Recruitment and hiring
• Promotion and sponsorship of talent, and succession planning
• Performance evaluations and compensation
• Team and project assignments, including opportunities to build relationships across the organization and/or with clients
• Client or customer service
• Budget decisions and activation of new business opportunities
• Openness to new sources of ideas and innovative solutions

An important aspect of leadership is to turn around and see who is following you. If those who follow you all look and behave just like you, something is wrong. That is simply not representative of our highly diverse society.

Which voices are heard?
Even the best leaders may be surprised to discover they are ignoring or dismissing good ideas simply because they come from an unexpected source within the organization. How does our brain – without our direction - simply ignore a contribution from one colleague, yet welcome the very same idea from another?

Many leaders have acknowledged that some women struggle to be heard equitably at the executive table in this way. Another all-too-common example? The persistent assumption that the extrovert who speaks up in meetings is more knowledgeable than the introvert who prefers to provide insight in a less exposed setting. Whether it is the manager who dismisses the idea from the employee nearing retirement in favour of the younger colleague, or is unwittingly reluctant to listen to the recent immigrant from the unfamiliar culture, the question is: how many worthwhile ideas or solutions have gone unheeded, obstructed by an involuntary blindspot?

The urge to help
Positive bias can have just as much impact as negative objections. It is hard for most of us to accept that the act of helping others could contradict our intentions to be good, supportive citizens and colleagues. Yet a common form of hidden bias is the inclination to give an extra helping hand to someone with whom we have a bond. A common example is our willingness to interview a contact referred by a friend, or help secure that all-important way in to the ground floor for our neighbour’s child or fellow alumna. The motivation to help is not bad, but in the workplace, these subtle advantages can foster unequal opportunities that promote the status quo and limit diversity. However they may manifest themselves, when hidden biases operate unchecked, we are less likely to make the best decisions for ourselves, our companies and our employees. The stakes are high: talent languishes and leaves, client service suffers, the organization loses out on market opportunities, and innovation stalls. Modern discrimination less and less takes the form of harm inflicted on “them”. Rather, discrimination can often result from the big and small actions of helping those who are like ourselves, or in our in-group. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji

It’s on each individual to be vigilant about our blindspots. Not just the ones that close our minds to possibilities, but in equal measure, we must resist the urge to favour those with whom we share a connection – the same school, the same race or culture, the same social circle. We have to challenge ourselves to resist the power of these natural affinities.

Rod Bolger, Senior Vice-President, Finance & Controller, RBC, comments:

“Earlier in my career, I made fast judgements in the hiring process, especially about people’s backgrounds. I came to realize my success - and failure - rests on finding the best people. I have to listen more carefully and more effectively.”

Outsmarting the brain: the journey to overcoming hidden biases
As potent as hidden biases can be, the good news is that it is possible to overcome them. Although addressing the role of hidden bias requires a courageous approach to embedding inclusiveness in everyday interactions, the solution isn’t found in complex new processes or costly new initiatives. Instead, overcoming hidden biases takes a concerted effort to outsmart our own brains, through awareness, acknowledgment and conscious effort.

Identifying and owning our biases
– Fiona Macfarlane, Chief Inclusiveness Officer

We all have biases. True leaders surface these and actively strive to overcome them and make sure they don’t shape behaviour or decisions. Companies need to encourage these courageous decisions. Kerrie MacPherson, Partner, Financial Services Office, Advisory, EY New York and Managing Partner, British Columbia, EY

Consider three examples in which hidden biases can affect behaviour in the workplace:

Shifting criteria in hiring and talent promotion

Three candidates have reached the interview stage for a job opening.

Through reflection, consultation with trusted colleagues and exploration of such tools as Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, leaders can begin to identify their own biases. The process takes personal courage, and a willingness to consider potentially unwelcome aspects of our mental framework. By understanding the value in overcoming our biases, leaders can step past the discomfort and begin to acknowledge and eliminate their blindspots. Our brain, processing information faster than we recognize, has already determined a preference for one candidate over the others within seconds, regardless of the subsequent interview performance. It may be that one candidate speaks with an accent, or another is imperceptibly too old, or we have a connection with the other candidate because we come from the same small town. Whatever the subtle and unsubtle factors may be, the result is that our unconscious bias has subverted criteria that are more relevant in determining which candidate is best for the job. We have, in effect, subtly adjusted the criteria to fit the preferred candidate.

The first step to defeating our hidden biases is to be honest with ourselves about the blind spots we have. Having a bias is only human. The only shame is in making no effort to improve. And human beings are an improving species — we have been improving ourselves in every way over millennia. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji

“The tone from the top is tremendously powerful. When leaders confront their biases and speak publicly about their efforts to change, others follow their lead. It is a powerful demonstration of commitment that carries weight with the rest of the organization.” Harry Samuel, CEO, RBC Capital Markets Europe, and Head, RBC Investor & Treasury Services

“An important part of tackling hidden bias is to understand that it is virtually universal, and that it doesn’t make us bad people. Destigmatizing the topic, overcoming the fear of talking about it and owning the responsibility to change are all actions we can undertake together as colleagues and professionals. This also helps to support us when we inevitably make mistakes along the way.”

So what can I do? Tips for identifying unintentional biases
• Explore the Implicit Association Test (see Additional resources, p. 9).
• Ask trusted colleagues for candid feedback; take a 360º approach to seeking input.
• Discuss frames of reference and their impact with a coach or trusted colleague.
• Be conscious of the words and physical reactions that surface in interactions with others; consider whether these respect and accommodate different styles.
• Be mindful, respectful, curious and supportive of colleagues’ differences.
• Listen to all voices equally; speak out if you suspect a colleague’s contribution may be ignored or misappropriated unfairly.

Questions to ask yourself:
• Do I typically hire the same type of person, or personality type?
• When I say a candidate is not the right fit, what do I mean?
• What does my slate of candidates look like? Do I speak up if it is not sufficiently diverse?
• Which of my past hires were successful, and what can I learn from those choices that didn’t work out as well?
• Who do I like to assign to work on project teams? Who do I tap for the lead role? Do I have the same go-to people all or most of the time?
• Who do I take to important client or cross-team meetings?
• Who do I encourage to lead or speak out at meetings? Am I creating opportunities for those less extroverted to demonstrate their capabilities equally to clients or other colleagues?
• How do I identify candidates for promotion and succession?

Guilt-free but not carefree
Deliberate actions drive change
Once we acknowledge that our brains are wired to be biased and begin exploring our personal blindspots, it becomes possible to identify the disconnection between our intentions and our actions. At that point, we can take deliberate, substantive action to align our behaviour more closely with what we wish to be doing. Changing such deep-seated behaviour is profoundly challenging, requiring a long-term commitment to incremental improvements, one encounter at a time. Armed with awareness, intent, and a sense of responsibility, leaders can adopt a more mindful approach to their interactions and decision-making. Broadly speaking, this empowered approach can be imagined as a three-pronged effort:

• Think differently: Make a conscious effort to seek out people with different backgrounds, experiences and capabilities to collaborate on teams and projects.
• Learn differently: Seek out opportunities to immerse yourself and your team members in different environments outside your (or their) comfort zone.
• Act differently: Take deliberate actions that disrupt your normal process and help prevent biases from shaping your decisions and behaviour.

“The onus is on us as leaders to ensure we accommodate different styles. If golf is the default method of building client relationships, what are the implications if the best person for the account doesn’t play? Similarly, our businesses tend to reward extroverts, leaving introverts shut out of opportunities. We need to be open-minded about the ways in which we engage with others.” Jay Hutchison, Managing Partner, Tax, EY

About EY

EY is a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services. The insights and quality services we deliver help build trust and confidence in the capital markets and in economies the world over. We develop outstanding leaders who team to deliver on our promises to all of our stakeholders. In so doing, we play a critical role in building a better working world for our people, for our clients and for our communities.EY refers to the global organization and may refer to one or more of the member firms of Ernst & Young Global Limited, each of which is a separate legal entity. Ernst & Young Global Limited, a UK company limited by guarantee, does not provide services to clients.
For more information about our organization, please visit ey.com.
© 2013 Ernst & Young LLP. All Rights Reserved.
A member firm of Ernst & Young Global Limited.
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This publication contains information in summary form, current as of the date of publication, and
is intended for general guidance only. It should not be regarded as comprehensive or a substitute
for professional advice. Before taking any particular course of action, contact Ernst & Young or
another professional advisor to discuss these matters in the context of your particular circumstances.
We accept no responsibility for any loss or damage occasioned by your reliance on information
contained in this publication.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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