4 ways leaders can combat unconscious bias

Unconscious bias represents a tricky enemy - perhaps lurking in your comfort zones, job descriptions, or everyday interactions. Here's how leaders can fight it in teams and enterprises
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What’s the most challenging part of unconscious bias? It is unconscious. You don’t even know that you are doing it while you are doing it. Yet the outcomes of your actions will speak for themselves – by which time, it might be too late.

I recently attended a panel session on Unconscious bias and how to make your voice heard, organized by SpringCM. I wanted to listen to and learn from the panelists on their first-hand experiences being on the receiving end of unconscious bias. During the session, I began thinking about the need for action on all fronts to combat this phenomenon.

The panel was moderated by Heather Christman, senior director, strategy and development for PeopleFoundry, while four distinguished panelists shared their insights: Manika M. Turnbull, Ph.D., VP & Chief Diversity Officer at HCSC; Terri Brax, CEO at Women Tech Founders; Michelle Joseph, CEO & founder at PeopleFoundry; and Andee Harris, CEO at Highground.

[ Read also: Adobe CIO: Successful women do these things to shatter career stereotypes. ]

Insights on unconscious bias

Here are some realities about bias that surfaced through the various experiences of the panelists:

  • Bias exists because people exist. It is pervasive.
  • Bias is activated without the individual’s control, possibly leading to snap judgments and blind spots.
  • Bias grows over the years in the world around you.
  • Bias is fueled in the comfort zone of working with people like yourself.
  • Bias is expedient – you’re just getting the work done.
  • Bias surfaces in unexpected places, such as the words used in job descriptions, and holidays that are celebrated within the enterprise.
  • Bias comes across when the gender of the working parent triggers questions about parental responsibilities.

Four ways to fight unconscious bias

These insights led me to wonder what we can do to consciously combat this unconscious bias. Here are some of my thoughts on how we as leaders can fight it:

1. Groom. Human bias is based upon casual observations. We form opinions based on what we see in the world around us resulting in our brains training themselves on repeating phenomenons. That is the way I have seen it – and therefore, that is the way it ought to be. Today’s workforce needs to have balance, for example, including people with different genders, ethnicities, and physical challenges. So does the workforce of tomorrow.

Today’s schoolchildren are tomorrow’s torchbearers and thought leaders. A healthy mix of children from upcoming generations must be trained and motivated to engage in STEM projects.

Combat Force One: Grow the diversity in the future workforce.

2. Collaborate. While enterprises can take action within their firewalls, unconscious bias is human. There are no corporate or regional boundaries for unconscious bias. As one panelist asserted, it is pervasive across the extended enterprise. Therefore, collaboration between enterprises to join forces to take action is vital. This panel session is a fine example of such collaboration – but collaboration needs to be extended to jointly take action across the corporate and the academic worlds.

Combat Force Two: Corporations can collaborate with academia to change the DNA of the workforce.

3. Cross-pollinate. Diverse teams must be staffed with people representing different mindsets – not just a segment of the community. Project teams benefit from input from a wide variety of people. (We have heard some CIOs call this bringing “texture” to a problem-solving team. The texture - and problem-solving power – of the group increases with diversity of voices and ideas.) For example, the fine panelists for this session (and the moderator) happened to be women who shared great insights, triggering thought-provoking conversation. Cognitive diversity is not about who you are but how you think.

Combat Force Three: Rethink how you construct teams, keeping unconscious bias in mind.

4. Measure. Subjective conclusions are extremely difficult to measure. How much do I like a person? Or not? Quantifiable performance outcomes matter. How is the overall performance of the enterprise affected by gender diversity? Evidence (like this McKinsey research on diversity and corporate profits) shows the positive impact diversity has on the overall financial performance of an organization. (See also what MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Malone’s research says about high-performing teams.)

However, it is important that outcomes are measured, tracked and communicated at your enterprise – to spread the information about the resulting benefits.

Combat Force Four: Quantify the performance of the enterprise.

I am sure there are enterprises who are already taking one or more of these steps. Do other solutions come to mind? Please let me know.

One of the panel’s audience members accidentally referred to the topic as Unbiased Consciousness. Perhaps, it was no accident and was a sublime message instead about the world to come – a world where we are consciously unbiased rather than being unconsciously biased. Let the combat begin.

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E.G. Nadhan is the Chief Architect and Strategist for North America at Red Hat. He provides thought leadership on various concepts including Cloud, Blockchain, Analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) through multiple channels including industry conferences, executive roundtables as well as customer-specific executive briefing sessions.