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Everybody does it.  Recruiters do it, high powered executives do it, even high court judges do it.  When we shine a light on our actions, decisions and organisational data it’s clear that we are all just a little bit biased.

Our brains are amazing; they make sense of billions of bits of data every day.  However, they are hard wired to make instinctive decisions that are inherently flawed.  As recruiters, we favour people who look, sound or behave like us.  As leaders we think we objectively weigh up the pros and cons of a decision or situation, but the reality is, we rarely do.

Compounding this, our ability to make objective, rational decisions is reduced when we are fearful, rushed or overwhelmed by complex processes and systems.  And the worst bias-inducing culprit of all is the good old-fashioned ‘hangry’ (1) – an emotional state so powerful that it exponentially increases your chances of being sent down for a crime you may (or may not) have committed. (2)

Now, hands up anyone that doesn’t recognise these factors as a daily reality of organisational life.

The old ways are no longer working

Sadly, for too long our diversity dialogue has been about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  As a result we avoid talking about things like race or disability for fear of causing offence.  The result is we end up with a culture of avoidance and misunderstanding.  By avoiding talking about how we differ from others, or failing to take the time to dig deeper to understand each other’s background and perspective we can inadvertently cause the very offence we strive to avoid.  In essence we cultivate an environment where bias thrives.

Breaking the habit of bias

Google & Facebook know that even 1% bias impacts the productivity and effectiveness of our organisations – and I suspect many of us know how it impacts the quality of our working environment. Imagine then if we all committed to one action to help break the habit of bias – consider it our personal 1%.  How much change could we influence?

 Here are my pick of the top five actions you could take to reduce bias and create a more inclusive organisation – what would you do?

Dig into your organisational data.

Mine the insights from your talent and recruitment data.  How do drop out rates differ between groups of people as they pass through your recruitment stages?  How homogeneous are your succession plans? Who is more or less likely to be disciplined?

Ignite curiosity and build awareness.

Demystify the psychology of bias.  Give people the permission to be curious about bias and our approach to difference; encourage people to talk about and explore, without judgement, their own quirky brain habits and behaviours.

Hold up the mirror.

Take a Harvard Implicit Association Test. (3) Yes it’s tough, we may not like what we see, but facing up to and exploring our unconscious biases can help us be the person we want to be. Sharing our results can flush out ‘group think’ and pave the way to pragmatic actions to improve our practice and ability to role model inclusive behaviours.

Make it easy for folk to change

Who remembers a time when we didn’t pay 5 pence for a plastic bag? Nudges like these are carefully selected, practical interventions designed by organisational psychologists to alter our frame of decision-making to effect wide scale behaviour change. (4) They reduce the need for ‘training’ and make the less biased option easier to take. (5)

Build new skills

Diversity is a fact of life, however inclusion is an active choice.  Like managerial and leadership skills, our ability to be inclusive needs nurturing.  Once you’ve built awareness, people need to develop the skills and confidence to give feedback and respond effectively when they see or experience an unconscious bias.

-by Emma Rees

Emma Rees is a Business Psychologist who specialises in Inclusive Talent Management.  She founded Inspiring Insights in 2014 and has worked in partnership with West Midlands Employers to develop an evidence based and non-judgemental approach to uncovering and reducing unconscious bias in organisations.