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Considering Unconscious Biases in Organizational Decision Making

The truth is, unconscious bias seeps into our decision making processes every day. Bias is real, it can be measured, and every human is biased in some form or another.

Quickly, envision a person that you think of as a leader.

I bet that more than half of you envisioned a man. These are the simple unconscious biases that we don’t realize play a role in our decision making and judgements. Its not necessarily because we think men make the best leaders, it’s just because our experiences and learned tendencies help us categorize, sometimes to a fault, and this leads to unconscious bias. The only way to counteract a pattern of behavior is to recognize it, and consciously evaluate decisions knowing the strength and direction of your biases.

Test yourself:

You first must know what biases you have (including the direction and strength) before you can attempt to address them. What we mean by this is, how quickly do you come to a judgment about someone based on surface characteristics? In other words, how quickly would you dismiss a potential employee or board member because of their ethnicity or gender; and how strongly would you stick to this conviction? Could someone change your mind? If so, how?  The ways in which your personal biases present themselves may surprise you! Go take a few Implicit Bias Tests and check back here for the rest of the article. We recommend starting with Race IAT and Gender-Career IAT.

Understand heuristics:

Now that you have a better understanding of the strength and direction of your biases, you can address the bias in decisions head on. The decisions we make are patterned and mostly based on the experiences and ideas we’ve been exposed to in the past. These experiences (or lack of exposure to experiences) form short-cuts in our judgments that can result in bias. We all have similar sets of heuristics (these patterns, rules, or short-cuts in decision making), but the actual decisions we make are influenced by the individual biases we hold. Understanding heuristics is key in taking control of your biases. Being able to step back and link one or many of these heuristics to our biases will provide some concrete understanding as to why these judgements exist within us.

·       Availability heuristic – Most people overestimate the likelihood of a plane crash vs. a car crash. We have more exposure to the reporting and dramatization of plane crashes vs. car crashes, even though car crashes are much more common. How this can play out in Recruiting: If you tend to get applicants from a typical demographic, you may tend to overestimate the likelihood that, that demographic will get hired because of a mere exposure effect.

·       Representativeness heuristic – A fancy way of thinking about stereotypes in decision making.  This comes in to selection/recruiting and promotion when you bring to mind people who would perform well in the role you are looking to fill. Recruiters may unconsciously have bias against groups that are different from that prototype, including groups that are underrepresented in that particular team. This can perpetuate any existing diversity problems.

·       Confirmation bias – Yikes! This one’s a big one. If we have an opinion about a topic or have made a judgement about a specific candidate, we tend to seek out information that confirms our existing opinion and discount (and even ACTIVELY AVOID) information that goes against our previously held beliefs. Humans like to be correct in their judgments and opinions – this is why we like being around agreeable people! If a recruiter (that didn’t read this article) makes a decision about a candidate partially due to bias, they may then avoid or discount any additional information that should potentially keep the candidate in the running because it conflicts with their original judgement.

·       Survivor Bias – This one is less common and less thought about, but should be considered. We tend to only concentrate on the people or things that “survived” or “made it through” some process and inadvertently ignore those who did not. These “survivors” may be people in a medical study or applicants applying for a job. This is important in recruiting because it leads to over optimism and failure is often ignored. We don’t often go back and think, “well why didn’t this person make it through?”.  For example, if 3 of the 5 applicants with the best resumes all went to the same college some will conclude that this college must offer an exceptional education and this will be your mind set moving forward when looking at applicants from this college. However, you have made this judgement without looking at all the other students grades from this college, only the ones who “survived” the selection process.

Talk about this as a team:

Everyone’s bias is different, and some biases affect some situations more than others. Discussing these with the team, and asking for second opinions when making hiring, promotion, or similar decisions helps to counteract the impact of your faulty heuristics.

We all have biases. The first step is realizing it, figuring out what they are and how strong they are, then taking active steps to combat them. You are well on your way.

These are only a few examples, but if you’re interested in learning more check out this complete list of cognitive biases.

Linda Tropp and Rachel Godsil wrote an interesting series for Psychology today about overcoming implicit bias.

A special thanks to collaborator Madison Beard.

Psychological Safety and its Importance in Mission Driven Organizations

When you share a foundation of psychological safety with your teammates, you will feel more freedom to take interpersonal risks without the fear of being judged or penalized. Edmonson (1999) described a team rich in psychological safety as one characterized by trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves. Examples of this include emails mentioning family and reciprocal swearing. Beyond being able to be your whole self at work, psychological safety has been shown to mitigate anger during conflict, making the workplace more genuine and more peaceful.


How to cultivate a climate of psychological safety:

Communication: Everyone gets the opportunity to say what they need to say at an approximately equal rate of value. Meaning, everyone feels that the contributions of their teammates are about equal—even if they are in different subjects or task areas. This requires fostering open and intentional communication norms.

            Empathy: Teammates genuinely attempt to understand the feelings of others and be understanding of their perspective. Empathy is known to increase helping behaviors like picking up the slack when a teammate needs help or keeping the office kitchen clean. Encouraging Being curious about strangers, listening and allowing one’s self to be vulnerable, and expanding your natural circle of empathy (being sympathetic to those you would be naturally less sympathetic to) will all increase ones ability to empathize.


Bottom line: forge real connections!


Are you a mission driven organization?

            Psychological safety can play an even larger, more impactful role in mission driven organizations. In these organizations, conflicts can be more emotional, resources more scarce, and goal attainment more time sensitive. Thus, it is imperative for employees to ensure they are aligned with the organization’s mission. This drives psychological safety such that team members trust the importance of the mission creates the space to contribute genuinely. Further, cultivating a tolerance of failure allows people to fail quickly, communicate about it, and move forward effectively, together.              

Tips for fabulous failure:

  • Create a culture to learn from mistakes. Ensure people are not afraid to ask questions and talk about when they have made mistakes.
  • Solicit and provide feedback often. Do not just wait for annual performance reviews. Some organizations partake in a “mistake of the month” forum where they go through the ins and out of a mistake that was made and how to correct it or do it differently next time.
  • Try to avoid the fundamental attribution bias: attributing mistakes or slights to who a person is rather than considering the contribution of circumstances like we would for ourselves. For example: I am engaging in attribution bias if when I am late, I feel it is because there were many things out of my control and it should not reflect on me as as person. However, if my teammate is late it is because he is lazy and does not care. This type of bias often hinders the ability for a team to create psychological safety and form a mutual level of respect.

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