I shouldn’t be alive right now. At last count, I have died more than three times but for the grace of modern-day technology and good fortune…and yet, of course, no one would know that from my photograph or passing me on the street. I am just another cog in the collective wheel – another privileged white female going about her cushioned-against-reality sort of a day.
And you would be right… Wouldn’t you?
Leadership that embraces the act of recognising and talking about personal ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘everyday prejudice’ is a critical route for unlocking the potential magic in corporate teams and outcomes. And yet, as someone who practises leadership, no doubt you will have experienced the theatre of corporate Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) training programmes where these phrases are bandied about in in such a laissez-faire manner that you’d be forgiven for believing that only overt manifestations were of concern. The typical ‘in your face’ examples are of course appalling, yet left unchecked, the more obscure yet equally debilitating ‘death by a thousand paper-cuts’ can rapidly deliver Group Think and Echo Chambers: the death knell of a team’s psychological safety and destroyer of potential for robust innovation.
And so, I invite you to look a little deeper at those workplace events all too easily brushed off by management or instigators as a one-off, unintended or inadvertent. Are the lead-characters (culprit and/or target) always the same? Are the ‘sleights’ persistent in their execution? How can you move the needle in making your team aware of their own limitations, invite recognition, discussion and radical innovation?
Let me take you on a brief journey through unconscious bias and everyday prejudice, and the impact on the people who experience their negative effects. At that fleeting journey’s end, I will offer some tools that can support everyone in exploring how we might become more aware and therefore less biased/ prejudiced along the way.
Unconscious bias and everyday prejudice
I am sure that you have already heard about unconscious bias (unsupported ‘intuitive’ judgements in favour or against characteristics that are different to that of the actor) and everyday prejudice (ideas or opinions applied without factual backing or evidence). However, the nuances with which these behaviours and attitudes pervade into ‘normal’ conduct are often overlooked.
As an identical twin, I was rarely considered independently of my sister, nor she of me, when we were growing up. We had few visible differences and yet SO MANY invisible ones. Society’s selective grouping of us both into a perpetual single entity of ‘The Twins’ was subtly demeaning and yet socially accepted. The slapdash use of either name, duplicated engagement styles… The righteous indignation whenever we called the error out to the people who engaged in this lazy perception of ‘you look alike to me,’ even when we were older and not as superficially ‘identical’ as we had been as young children.
I share these ‘papercut’ experiences to demonstrate two different types of bias that we both experienced almost daily: Confirmation bias (assuming something or shaping opinions on inconsequential and incomplete items of information) and attribution bias (we can all be far too quick to judge or falsely assume things about a person without knowing their full story). In spite of this, I very much doubt they would ever be offered as examples of such bias’s within a corporate DEI training programme.
At last count, there are AT LEAST sixteen different types of bias in the workplace:
- Affinity bias – tendency to prefer people who have similarities to the actor
- Confirmation bias – as above
- Attribution bias – as above
- Conformity bias – also known as Peer Pressure!
- Halo effect – rating individuals more highly due to their association to highly regarded people or places
- Horns effect – rating individuals more negatively due to their association to less well regarded people or places
- Contrast effect – exaggerated comparison
- Gender bias – preferring one gender over another
- Ageism bias – having negative feelings towards someone based on their age
- Name bias – preferring certain types of names over others (typically of Anglo origin)
- Beauty bias – societal behaviour that assumes attractive people are more successful, competent or qualified base on their looks alone.
- Height bias – judgements made according to a person whose height is significantly above or below the ‘normal.’
- Anchor bias – holding onto an initial piece of information on which to base subsequent decisions
- Nonverbal bias – letting body language or mannerisms affect decisions and opinions
- Authority bias – giving greater validation to ideas or opinions provided by more senior colleagues
- Overconfidence bias – being more confident in one’s abilities or potential than any evidence might support.
The effects of biased tendencies can infiltrate every aspect of our professional lives: who we hire or promote, how we interact with an individual, what advice we consider or how we conduct performance evaluations.
On the other side of the coin, have you or someone you know ever called that instance of forgetting something a ‘senior moment’? Written off an exchange as ‘banter’ when it contained backhanded compliments or overheard some flippant statement of having OCD when a person double checks some item or other… Everyday prejudice is rarely categorically hostile but rather thoughtless expressions of our own culture, group or individual identity. However, the outcome of unintentional discrimination continues to have implications for understanding disparities in so many aspects of social and corporate life. The private implications for individuals on the receiving end of such coercive behaviours can include a decrease in performance, health or participation. All in all, it’s a deeply unpleasant reality for everyone.
Becoming more aware
Proclamations that this is ‘not us’ or ‘it doesn’t happen here’ are as prevalent as they are unhelpful. Well intentioned and fair-minded people are likely unaware of the everyday experiences of those being targeted, but such experiences DO happen and the impact is not undone by simply showcasing the positive experiences that can also be evidenced. Research shows that positive experiences may be more common, yet negative experiences influence our attitudes more strongly and their impact is felt much more deeply.
Do not mistake my intention in calling out these aspects of corporate life – in no way do I advocate the demonisation of everyday prejudice. Quite the opposite is true. In reducing its link to more sensitive issues of race, religion or gender, leaders are offered an opportunity to open up a dialogue around the shared, less-threatening examples. By focusing on the cause of the behaviour, we can reduce the potential for needless intimidation and break the traditional relationship triangle of culprit-target-bystander. This, in turn, invites collective psychological safety and encourages the growth of diversity, empowering open exchange of different opinions and ideas.
There’s a tool for that
As a leader, if you are interested in supporting your team/s to better understand their individual unconscious bias traits or prejudices, Harvard University has a wealth of free-to-access ‘implicit association tests’ available from their ‘Project Implicit’ homepage. These tools enable the measurement of bias around certain topics based on the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations – from social attitudes, health and thoughts on race/ethnicity.
Similar tools are also available via the not-for-profit organisation Learning for Justice: Teaching tolerance: test yourself for hidden bias or the projectimplicit.net team: Understanding prejudice: implicit association.
I invite you to start the conversation and enable better innovation and creativity. I invite you to facilitate discovery of the uncompromised and unique value each individual team member can offer in building a culture of respect and belonging.
I invite you to Manifest More Magic.
About the Author:
Kate Bohn is a well-known figure in the UK Fintech and Financial Services industry – with over 20-years’ experience in shaping and delivering innovative partnerships, ecosystems, strategy, products and approaches to the financial and tech sectors across a global footprint. Alongside her day job, she is an active mentor of the talent pipeline and currently co-editing a Fintech Leadership book for the modern office.
An award-winning ‘accidental techie,’ role model and proudly ‘other’ in the world of Banking, Kate is also a keen DEI champion, striving for diversity of thought in all aspects and levels of corporate life.
All opinions are her own.