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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Aug 2019

Am I biased?

As more and more organisations put diversity and inclusion on their agendas, many leaders are confronted with, or choose to ask themselves, the question “Am I biased?”. The answer of course is “yes you are and so am I”. If you are human, you are biased. Let me explain a few reasons why:

Our neurobiology makes us biased. The amygdala and the prefrontal lobe are in constant dialogue, but the amygdala always has the first word. As Daniel Kahneman has shown “We think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way round. We believe in the reasons because we’ve already made the decision.”

The limitations of our brain’s processing power make us biased. Consider the amount of memory your phone needs to store and play a movie. Now imagine how much processing power the brain needs to make decisions about people. We need shortcuts. This means when we are deciding who to include, who to hire and who to trust, we inevitably use rules of thumb.

Our culture makes us biased. We receive our values and our rules of thumb unconsciously. Culture works on us invisibly. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, good people with good intentions are unaware of how they include or exclude others. This is because you can’t see something when you are in it. When you are in the in-group, you don’t see that there is an in-group. As the saying goes, if you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish. However when you are in the out-group, boy do you know about it. Every day is an effort in bending yourself out of shape. This bending out of shape is exhausting and can range from worrying about what you wear to changing the way you speak, to suppressing your most deeply-held values. Oh, and making sure that those in the in-group don’t suspect that you are making the effort also takes effort!

Bias may be unintended but the evidence that it exists is incontrovertible. Handsome people win more pitches for start-up equity. Taller people get paid more on average. A CV from Emily gets accepted 1:10 times, an identical CV from Latisha gets accepted only 1:15 times. Women get a higher volume of critical commentary on performance appraisals than men – regardless of the gender of the manager who writes the appraisal. No individual intends this but the results are clear.

Last time I looked there were over 200 types of bias described on Wikipedia. From the Halo Effect that accounts for the handsome dudes winning more pitches, to Selective Perception which may account for the Latisha vs Emily effect. Not all these biases relate to diversity and inclusion but they establish firmly that we consistently overestimate our ability to be unbiased. This has a name all of its own. Bias Blindspot is the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people!

The more interesting question is not ‘am I biased?’ but ‘am I creating an inclusive culture?’ In my experience the following questions are a useful way of starting a conversation about inclusivity. For some leaders they can be an awakening. Like a goldfish suddenly seeing the water. Oh my goodness – I’m in the in-group!

How many of these statements are true for you?

  1. When I learn about the heritage of my organisation, I see that people like me built it
  2. I can be pretty sure that I will be listened to in meetings
  3. I can access all or most of the people I need to talk to in order to do my job
  4. I feel relatively at ease in my working environment – it provides me no more challenges than my colleagues
  5. When I look at the leaders at the top of the company, I see people who are like me
  6. I can speak up or be critical of things without drawing attention to myself as ‘different’
  7. I can advocate more diversity without people thinking that I am doing so out of self interest
  8. I can make a mistake without fearing that the mistake will be linked to my heritage, race, gender, education, upbringing, religion, health, disability, sexuality, body shape or any other aspect of my difference to the norm
  9. I spend little or no time thinking about the issues in the questions above

The more statements you agree with, the more likely it is that you are unaware of what it feels like to be excluded in your organisation. Most leaders, by definition, have made it into the corporate in-group. If you are (and feel) included you can perform with much less effort than those who are (and feel) excluded. Those leaders who care about whether others feel included and how this affects performance need to be hyper-aware. Yes, like me, you are biased, yes, like me, you are likely not doing enough to create an inclusive culture – we are only human. No reason to beat ourselves up, but every reason to wake ourselves up.

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