HOW DOES UNCONSCIOUS BIAS AFFECT LEADERS IN MULTI NATIONAL ORGANISATIONS?
In the twenty-five years that I have been working in the field of diversity and inclusion, my observations are that many changes have taken place in the way diversity is positioned, talked about and championed within multinational organisations.
Three changes stand out most;
- The language of diversity (how it is discussed and labelled);
- The business case imperative and rational for diversity and inclusion;
- The concept of unconscious bias.
In the case of the last two, many business leaders in multinationals often speak on why diversity and inclusion is imperative to business success and how uncovering unconscious bias allows for different perspectives. These days we rarely find senior leaders openly hostile to diversity, at least publicly, so why is it that in many multinationals there is the absence of both diversity and inclusion, particularly at the top? Despite the investment of resources, the truth is that multinationals either ‘struggle’ or are ‘stuck’ in creating inclusive cultures and diversity in their general workforces. This is particularly noticeable in the upper echelons of senior leadership, where many of the positions and roles are still largely occupied by white, middle aged men. Even young companies like Google struggle to address diversity and inclusion. According to its own figures 70% of Google employees are men - 61% of whom are white. In addition, women only occupy 21% of leadership roles. The gap in the technical and nontechnical between male and female representation is even wider.
UNCONCIOUS BIAS: ITS PAST AND PRESENT
Do business leaders really see the relevance of diversity or are they just saying what people expect them to say on the topic but then carrying on as before?
As such then, it may not be correct to blame business leaders for being hypocrites or cynics. According to social scientific research* from the likes of Banaji, Mahzarin & Greenwald, Anthony G. and Malcolm Gladwell* it is well known that we prefer to associate and work with people who are from a similar background to ourselves. This preference is based on our upbringing and experience and expresses a real human need that in past times would have helped us to survive. So in today’s environment, does having bias make us bad people? In fact, having bias is normal, human and natural. The reality is that all of us are biased and the key to beginning to understand this is through recognising our biases and what we want to do about it. As human beings we take in about 11 million bits of information however our brain can only functionally deal with about 40! We therefore take in information; categorize it, creating stereotypes, expectation and assumptions most often based on our learned perceptions and preferences. This is the ‘natural’ bias that we as a default but if it is left unchecked it can have an adverse impact on employee cycle, promotions, evaluations and dismissals.
THE BENEFITS OF MINIMISING UNCONCIOUS BIAS
Substantial research and the evidence drawn from neuroscience* supports the view that reducing unconscious bias can make multinationals more effective in growing their talent in the long term and can help to have positive impact on the bottom line. The minimising of unconscious bias, whether at the entry level or at senior management level, can lead to the attraction of a wider pool of employees. It can also help retain top talent, support the increase of market share, boost profitability and support brand innovation in multinational organisations.
WHY DON’T MORE BUSINESS LEADERS TAKE AN ACTIVE APPROACH TO D&I?
Having said that business leaders recognise and publically acknowledge the importance of diversity and, at the same time, noted that unconscious bias is a basic human fundamental mechanism that once was vital for survival, we should still ask the question; why don’t more business leaders take an active approach to D&I? Perhaps one of the reasons is that there are implicit assumptions made by business leaders such as, “Is D&I relevant to us after all we are successful without it?” This may also reflect a belief (unconsciously held) by senior leaders that diversity and business success have no connection and the two do not impact on each other. That diversity and inclusion is a ‘nice to have’ and not seen as a priority and an essential ingredient in any business plan. Furthermore there may also be an attitude, individually and collectively that “Diversity has nothing to do with me!” or “I can’t see what the issue is – it all looks fine to me”. This is a case of not being able to see something because it doesn’t affect them – so it isn’t in their ‘reality’. These blind spots impede progress on D&I in the world of business management.
In my next article I will explore in more depth how D&I and unconscious bias shows up in the workplace and what to do about it.
- Banaji, Mahzarin &Greenwald, Anthony G. (2013) Blind spot: Hidden Bias of Good people. Delacorte Press
- Wood, M, Hales, J, Purdon, S, Sejersen, T & Hayllar, (2009) and A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practices in British cities: research report no 607. Department for Work and Pensions, London
- Dr Gordan Evian Brain Revolution train your Brain to freedom
- Rock David Your Brain at work (2009)
- Kahneman, Daniel – Thinking fast and slow (2011)
- Kandola, Binna. The value of Differences: Eliminating Bias in Organisations