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Our Unconscious Biases – Demons or Saviors

27 november 2020, 15:10 / Publications

Imagine that our minds are wired to function like most people walk through snow in heavy winter. If someone has beaten the first path from one end of a large space to the other, the likelihood is that the second person will follow these footsteps to save energy and reach his or her destination. It is true that sometimes the destination might be further away or that there is a shorter road – who cares, someone else did part of the job, why make a new path. Then a third person follows what is by now an almost well-established routine. And then it becomes a no-brainer for the fourth, fifth, etc.

Similar to this our brain saves resources and functions in a “smart” mode, not reinventing the wheel every time. At the end of the day, a person’s brain has so much work to do! Of course, it has to go on autopilot or otherwise it will melt or at least not serve us properly. Nowadays scientists calculate that there are anywhere between 6000 and 70 000 thoughts that pass through one’s mind in 24 hours. They estimate that we make several thousand to 32 000 decisions per day! Huge work and such a welcoming climate to unconscious biases. 

“Well, see, Maria, the client wanted a middle-aged, grey-haired, white, West European man to lead the project.” I laughed uncomfortably and worked around the awkward situation so that the meeting could continue. “At least the colleague is a skilled one,” I told myself, “the client happens to be in good hands. But the reasons to select him were…hmmm, quite narrow-minded.”

Later on, thoughts came back to me: “what if the team for that specific client’s needs was best led by a fair-haired, South African woman, or by dark-haired, Latin American man in his late 30s, or a black man, or an Asian or…

Let us face it – our unconscious biases and preconditioned beliefs are not only shaping the way we see reality, analyze situations and make decisions. They are literally robbing us from the rich variety of possibilities we have, they strangle our mindset and stifle each and every attempt to think differently, to achieve growth by sidestepping the well-beaten mind paths.

More and more people are now becoming aware of the tremendous impact our thoughts have on personal success and wellbeing as well as on the success and prosperity of the economy as a whole. Daniel Kahneman in his Nobel award-winning study “Thinking Fast and Slow” differentiates between two systems of thinking which he numbers as 1 and 2 where 1 is the quick, automatic, subconscious type of thinking based on personal upbringing and millennia of human experience, and 2 is the rational, judging, deliberate thinking which tests our beliefs and challenges our mental habits. It is quick thinking which saves time and energy and is more risk-prone when it comes to biases, fallacies, and misconceptions.

If biases are unconscious can we change or event pretend to control them?

Well, yes and no. We cannot change something we are not aware of or deliberately look to prove in one way or another, otherwise the mental world we live in will be shattered.

And, yes, we can change them or at least some of them. Here are 5 steps to hack our mind:

  1. Research them
  2. Acknowledge the negative impact
  3. Admit them
  4. Work to unplug them
  5. Go back and repeat
  1. Researching what biases are and are not is a natural first step. Brain shortcuts are the cumulative effect of everything we have been exposed to in our life. Yet, life today is nowhere near where it was some 40-20 or even 10 years ago. Let us take COVID 19 – many of us thought pandemics happen mainly in Asia and Africa, right?  We thought wealth and liberal approaches to everything in life would ensure us against such adversities. Let us revisit these beliefs based on what is going on in the world right now.

Understanding their nature will help us analyze the root causes for many of them as well as their consequences. 

  1. Acknowledge the negative impact they have not only on the people who become victims of other people’s biases but on the teams, companies and society as a whole. 

Bias is particularly disruptive in the corporate world and here are processes where it best manifests itself: hiring and interviewing, performance appraisals, succession planning and promotions, innovation initiatives, team dynamics, especially at management level, Board Level composition.

AIMS Board Services research shows that despite the years of affirming the role of female leaders globally and their positive impact in C-Suite roles, the average percentage of men is still heavily domineering. Some 75% to 80% of the highest executive roles are taken by men.

Researches prove that there are more aspects of biases based on age, ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

Realising their damage will feed our motivation to conduct a self-audit on our beliefs and “mental shortcuts” so that we can

  1. Admit that they exist even in ourselves. Acknowledging that biases are limiting and harmful provides the answer to the big WHY? Why change our way of perceiving and deciphering the world around us, why challenge our comfort zone, why work hard and even sometimes face criticism, why becoming different or risk alienating ourselves in terms of thinking from people we like and are used to.

Admitting biases is different from paying them lip service or going with the flow because it is trendy, the talk of the day, a corporate requirement that we predict will turn into yet another hypocrisy. Biases are like parasites which we do not necessarily see but they do their job – relentlessly and tirelessly. And one day they may lead to a disease or even worse.

So what do we do then? Of course;

  1. Work to unplug it. In our work as Executive Search Consultants, we face biases – both conscious and unconscious. We have seen the tremendous destructive aftermaths of those.

The conscious biases can be as dangerous as the unconscious ones. They are a consequence of one’s upbringing, personal tribulations or deeply embedded instincts for being liked, having power, etc. They may also stem from an ill-managed ego.

In those cases, even the threat of legal consequences for discriminative actions might not be strong enough to make people honestly challenge and change their well-beaten mental paths. 

As professional consultants who care for the success of all parties involved we use a “What if?” testing system to bring the particular bias to the level of slow, i.e. rational thinking. “What if the candidate meets all the other requirements but this one? Would you decline to interview them?

What if they prove they can handle the job efficiently, would you choose not to see them?

What if the best candidate does not meet this or that biased expectation, would you refuse to hire him/her?”

The list of questions that can be asked is long but you get it – we contrast the bias with the price of losing a perfectly suitable candidate.

     5. Go back and repeat. Unplugging biases is like weeding a garden even for those who routinely do a check up on their preconceived ideas and inherent beliefs in search of the most adequate and fair approach. No matter how well you chaffed those several square meters of land you have to go and revisit that it stays in good shape. The winds, rains and other people’s gardens may give birth to unwanted new plants.

 

As part of our Talent Management services I recently delivered a 2-day training to a group of young and promising professionals one of whom was tattooed up to his chin, was dressed as if going to play basketball on a rainy day and had several piercings.  “A troublemaker”, my subconscious labelling system judged.  “Why is he here? Would he be even slightly interested in the important stuff that we are to deal with?”

By the end of the first day, I felt ashamed of myself. By the end of the second – I realised that the client company had a rare jewel in its ranks. This young guy led one of the most intricate functions in the organisation. He is a highly intelligent, self-provoking, sensitive, humble and good-natured person.

Bottom-line, biases be it conscious or unconscious, are directly related to stereotyping. 

Are they all bad? Well, no. Some of them might be even lifesaving and are known as “common sense”, for example being cautious of snakes. If unchecked, however, they can turn into a double-edged sword. Biases are tricky as they make us look for proof either in self-defence or in truth denial till we transform them into a self-fulfilling prophecy that works both ways – on the one hand, we stereotype others, and on the other, we may also stereotype ourselves and thus play down on our own abilities and miss opportunities. 

As a business leader or HR professional, it is recommended that you work with an Executive Coach to explore your own unconscious biases which could be hampering you in your development or engage a professional Executive Search Consultant to ensure your team recruits in an inclusive and open-minded manner.

About the Author:

Written by Maria Shishkova, Managing partner AIMS International Bulgaria

Final edit by Leonie Pentz VP Sustainability and Managing Partner South Africa and the AIMS International Marketing team