The power of a diverse workforce is a proven competitive advantage. Gender and ethnic diversity among executive teams is strongly correlated to financially outperforming industry peers. Even so, women and people of color remain underrepresented in most boardrooms and key positions.
While organizations work to close that gap, the power of diversity to deliver results can be enhanced by reducing unconscious bias. In business, as in life, we work to make rational decisions based on our judgement. Our judgements, however, are deeply influenced by our background, experiences and surroundings.
Types of Unconscious Bias
Try as we might to be objective, unseen factors can affect how we perceive others. When they do, without knowing it, decisions that range from gaining everyone’s input on a solution to promotions and pay can be affected. Bias isn’t limited to gender or ethnicity either.
The positive side is that unconscious bias goes against our conscious values. Once recognized, the revealing of unconscious bias is a powerful step in counteracting it and gaining the full value in diversity.
Here are some of the ways unconscious bias can appear:
- Affinity Bias: We may hold a preference or favorable opinion of others who share characteristics we have in common, such as class and ethnicity, or things like hobbies or personal interests.
- Beauty Bias: This is one of the more common forms of unconscious biases and it’s exactly as described. Judging someone positively for characteristics having only to do with their looks.
- Conformity Bias: While teamwork and shared goals are valuable, allowing for dissenting opinions is a real asset. Others often have different experiences and viewpoints that deliver real value as well.
- Gender Bias: Perhaps the most common bias, gender can influence decisions as we try to fit others into roles or duties that we assume to be better suited for men or women.
Bias can appear in other ways as we go about judging and assessing others based on our own experiences. We can be subject to confirmation bias, looking for “proof” that what we already believe about another remains true. There is also attribution bias, where assuming another’s accomplishment is due to “luck” and not a real achievement based on their skill or intellect.
Here’s a list of two Dos and one Don’t for how to develop an effective response to Unconscious Bias in your organization:
- Don’t take the ‘all in’ approach
We are all susceptible to biases. they take our focus away from the facts as they are. Assessing others for what they can truly offer, and developing them in areas that truly need growth, provides greater financial performance—while offering employees a rewarding experience based on merit.
How then do we address this issue of unconscious bias? One of the most well known examples of addressing unconscious bias in the workplace happened at Starbucks. After an incident of racial profiling captured at one of their stores went viral, the company closed 8,000 stores and conducted a one-day training for over 175,000 employees.
While one can’t help but be impressed by this “all in” approach to address the issue head on, research doesn’t bear out that training of this kind offers much value. While corporations like Facebook and Google have spent millions to create training on this issue, the sum of that training appears to be all for very little reward. Diversity and bias training appears to have a short-term effect, if at all. Even worse, in some cases, “a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.”
- Do create cognitive dissonance that leads to awareness and change
The difficulty lies in addressing the issue of bias to begin with. As we said before, the good news is that people’s unconscious bias goes against their conscious values. When that discrepancy is presented to someone, it creates the well known “cognitive dissonance” effect.
Faced with their own bias, an individual can’t quite make sense of it. This may quickly lead to acceptance and a genuine desire to change. More often however, it leads to a sense of shame, anger and, in an attempt to end the dissonance, denial of the bias. You can see why a one-shot training may not really lead to much change, and possibly lead to a digging in of heels.
- Do take a customized coaching approach to transforming bias for good Coaching the Unconscious
What’s a leader to do if training doesn’t help much—and may actually hurt? The problem lies with the structure and purpose of training itself. When it’s time to teach a new skill or provide a new piece of knowledge, training’s characteristics work quite well:
- Single session or short-term
- Group learning
- Teach knowledge or a skill
- Tested for comprehension
Given the nature of the issues of unconscious bias, and how it can be so personal, it’s not surprising that training overall isn't usually very effective.
Coaching is the ideal approach when addressing these issues. Here are some of coaching’s most productive characteristics:
- Ongoing with regular sessions
- Open and fluidly structured
- One-on-One and Group
- Develop critical thinking, decision making and leadership skills
- Improves performance and behavior
In fact, analyzing the results of diversity training over 40 years reveals that positive outcomes occurred when it was “targeted to both awareness and skills development, and conducted over a significant period of time.”
When individuals are brought to the process as participants, and not just “receivers of training,” the outcomes are better and longer lived. Coaching is the essence of this kind of work and differs from training in some significant ways.
Coaching steps into a higher level, looking to grow critical thinking skills while focusing on decision-making. Sessions are held in a more open and informal environment, allowing for a free flow of thoughts and ideas. Coaching occurs over time, with a desire to improve one’s performance and behavior.
Coaching reduces the challenges of addressing unconscious bias by inviting the participants to engage in their own self-mastery. They come to understand their blind spots, and gain deeper insight into how others may unknowingly make choices based on bias.
While we can’t control or train our way out of our unconscious biases, we can, given the right environment and support, see them for what they are. Over time, each employee can develop a sense of bringing their unconscious framework into alignment with their deeply held values.
The investment made in coaching for unconscious bias unlocks real value creation for all stakeholders of companies, and creates a workforce that feels valued and rewarded for all that they bring.
Is unconscious bias an issue for your company? Give leaders at your organization an effective way to meet their biases and overcome them. Harness the full value that an open and diverse workplace offers.
AceUp’s coaching can help managers improve how they lead teams and bring the value of diversity to employees. Learn more about our deep bench of experienced business coaches by talking to an AceUp representative today.