Unconscious bias is the must have ‘little black dress’ of the moment. There are countless organisations exploring how it impacts their business, leaders, and key decisions. Unfortunately, most organisations are bundling it with diversity and inclusion efforts only, which isn’t getting the traction they need to sustain it. I was recently invited by the lovely folks at Peoplecorp to deliver a short session on how to embed unconscious bias, so I thought I’d share it with you also.
There are many organisations investing big bucks in unconscious bias training and assessments to help their leaders and teams better understand the biases they have. It’s usually coupled with diversity statistics and the need to become more aware of decision making across the business. Little is done on providing employees with the necessary tools to give them the ability to recognise bias and build an action plan to counter it when they return to their desks.
I used to hear many organisations sprout that unconscious bias was the golden ticket to solving all things diversity oriented, but we all realised very quickly that such a ticket doesn’t exist. What many of us did learn was that we needed to normalise bias through the every day decisions to assess our systems one and two thinking.
System one is the fast thinking, fast action part of the brain called the limbic brain that is responsible for our intuition, or gut instincts. System two is much slower and is centred from the language part of the brain, called the pre frontal cortex. Our decisions are based on the information provided, whether in a meeting or report, then passed on to our system two for confirmation, do we agree or not. If system two agrees with system one, we have a match and no further brain strain is required. If there isn’t a match, system two will look for alternative options by scanning through all of your past experiences for something that is ‘like’ the current situation. This is where bias is formed; the categorisation of your experiences creates positive and negative stories.
It’s all very complex, but suffice to say that learning about unconscious bias isn’t something that is going to be retained after a two hour training session without further commitment. Organisations must not only understand how bias is formed, they must look across their entire business to find where the key decisions are being made, so that they can put in place direct, and actionable checkpoints. Whether it’s in recruitment, performance management, talent identification, remuneration, work allocation, sales targets, or even budgets, they all need checkpoints to assess any bias that can positively or negatively impact the outcome. They’re unintended consequences most of the time but must have checkpoints inbuilt to give certainty.
Implementing a change management approach around unconscious bias is essential to making sure your project is successful. It’s more than training; it’s changing the way people make decisions in business. This is culture and behaviour change in its purest form and requires anyone implementing it to be considerate of it. We’re asking people to approach decision making differently to what they’re used to, which can raise all manner of behaviours like suspicion (why are you questioning my decisions?), apprehension (what if I am exposed?), or insolence (I’m just going to keep doing what I do), and so on.
When organisations examine, build, embed, and refine their processes and systems, unconscious bias becomes the norm. We respectfully challenge the status quo by asking counter-factual questions. These are questions that challenge the bias in order to break down the thinking behind it. They are fantastic questions that challenge another persons thinking. For example, if a manager says, “Sally isn’t ready for promotion this year” – counter-factual questions ask: why do you think that? What’s that based on? How does she rate in comparison to others? Counter-factual questions are a powerful way to get below a potentially biased opinion.
Here are four hot tips for getting better decision outcomes:
- Examine where key decisions and assumptions are being made across the business
- Build checkpoints around the decisions and assumptions to safeguard them
- Embed the checkpoints through a change management approach. It’s more than training, remember
- Refine it constantly. It’s a work in progress and needs constant massaging.
Finally, here are three tips for you to begin catching your own biases.
- Slow down your thinking – write it down or talk to someone
- Ask counter-factual questions – ask the 5Ws (what, when, where, why, who)
- Two options + two outcomes – write down two options with two outcomes to compare.
Getting started is always the hardest part, so A Human Agency has developed a short workshop to help you and your team build a solid plan around how to bring in the right people and plans together right from the start. We also have a great relationship with the best unconscious bias providers in the country, the Centre for Ethical Leadership where they provide the training and assessments and A Human Agency provides the change management guidance.
If you’re thinking of heading down the unconscious bias road, get in touch with our Co-CEO, Simon (firstname.lastname@example.org).