While a growing number of organisations are working hard to implement programmes to harness a diverse and inclusive work environment, many are still struggling to identify obvious improvements in the metrics they hoped to see changes in. The rhetoric of diversity has outpaced the reality and an increasing number of people are beginning to express ‘diversity fatigue’.
According toa team of world-renowned social psychologists, led by Harvard University Professor Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, the root of this disconnect between rhetoric and reality may lie in the unconscious mind. Most leaders would agree that it is unfair and unwise to choose a CEO because of height, overlook a manager for promotion solely because he is gay, or penalize employees for working flexibly. Yet these are real examples of how we unconsciously make decisions every day in favour of one group, and to the detriment of others, without even realising we are doing it. Even when leaders declare a commitment to fairness in their organisations, unconscious bias causes them to evaluate equal performers differently, as Emilio Castilla, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stephen Benard, of Indiana University, have demonstrated in their research on the ‘paradox of meritocracy’.
It is essential to understand that unconscious biases are not deliberately created; the human brain is hard-wired to make hasty decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences. Consider this: we are exposed to as many as 11 millionpieces of information at any one time, but our brains can only functionally deal with about 40. So how do we filter out the rest? We do it by developing a perceptual lens that filters out certain things and lets others in. As a result of these pre-established filters, we see things, hear things, and interpret them differently than other people might. Only occasionally do we realise how subjective those determinations are, and how much they are impacted not by what is in front of us, but by what we interpret is in front of us.
Can we outsmart the brain? According to the renowned behavioural economist, Daniel
Kahneman, it is very hard to eliminate our individual unconscious biases. Hundreds of studies have examined the relevance of interventions for reducing bias. It turns out that the positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance, with many participants actually reporting more animosity towards other groups afterward.
So what can we do? I will be exploring some concrete strategies for overcoming unconscious bias in my next blog. Till then, I would love to hear your diverse perspectives on this important topic!
- Levy Paluck, E., and Green, Donald P. (2009). Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 339-367.
- Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, 94(7), 14.
- Howard Ross, 2008. Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, Cook Ross
- (2013). Outsmarting our brains. Overcoming hidden biases to harness diversity’s true potential. EY.