by Beena Ammanath

Consciously overcoming unconscious bias

Jan 30, 2017
IT LeadershipIT Skills

To build high-performing teams in our businesses and organizations, we need to overcome unconscious bias.

When YouTube launched its iOS app video upload feature, about 10 percent of the initial videos were uploaded upside-down. The engineering team was baffled. How could such a large percentage of users be shooting their videos incorrectly? They realized that they had inadvertently designed the app for right-handed users only. They never considered the fact that phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in a user’s left hand. Here is an example of unconscious bias where the engineering team had created an app that worked best for right-handed users and did not address the possibility of a left-handed user.

Unconscious bias is all around us and within all of us. It is truly unconscious — in fact, almost all of the times, most people are not aware that they are being biased. And they are not doing it intentionally. Unconscious bias refers to a bias that happens automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. The other aspect of unconscious bias is that we think of unconscious bias as being about gender or race or sexual orientation, but it covers a much broader spectrum. 

I have a friend who is in his early fifties, and he is an excellent database developer with over two decades of development experience; programming is his passion and he’s a true data geek. When he was looking for a new job as a database developer, he had a tough time getting any interview calls. Most managers make the assumption that a 25-year old interviewee is a better coder than a 55-year old, mostly based on the interviewee’s age. Evaluating technical competency based on age is a common mistake most leaders make that could be costly to their organization. Unconscious bias can come in different forms and ultimately impacts our ability to build more diverse teams in our organizations. I refer to diversity in the broadest sense, team members from different backgrounds with different perspectives with different educations, from different cultures and a good balance of men and women.

Several studies have been done to see if there is a correlation between diversity in the team and company performance. A McKinsey study revealed that, for every 10 percent increase in diversity on the executive team, company earnings rose by up to 0.8 percent. But 91 percent of U.S. companies have senior leadership teams that are not diverse even today.

An HBR article provides a good preview into unconscious biases and key ideas on what organizations and its leaders can do.

How can you counter biases if they’re unconscious? Traditional ethics training is not enough. But by gathering better data, ridding the work environment of stereotypical cues, and broadening your mind-set when you make decisions, you can go a long way toward bringing your unconscious biases to light and submitting them to your conscious will.

In one of my previous roles, I worked for an amazing male leader. All my peers were men. If the meeting was running past 6 pm, my manager would turn to me and ask — “do you need to leave to pick up your kids?” I obviously did not like that feeling of being singled out and being doubted on my ability to manage my schedule efficiently. On the other hand, one of my male peers, who had a commitment to pick up his kids on weekdays, felt that the manager was being biased towards me and felt offended for not being asked if he had to leave. Of course, after a few such meetings, I spoke to the manager. He genuinely didn’t mean it in any negative way and was quick to fix it by just making it an open question for every staff member.

This was a relatively simple scenario of unconscious bias with an easy enough discussion to fix it. But when unconscious bias is over a promotion or a compensation difference or an organizational change, those are much more difficult discussions. Most diversity candidates fear backlash when they speak up about the unconscious bias they have experienced. And research has proven that the fear of backlash is grounded in reality.

In our work environment, when we are trying to drive a change, unconscious biases can be very detrimental. We have all seen it playing out around us. It could be the coworker getting promoted over a more deserving peer, because they play golf (or tennis or runs marathons or whatever sport) together and has a more personal connection with the manager. Or it could be a new leader getting in his or her buddy to manage a current high-performing team over the current manager just because the new leader has a previous relationship with the buddy and does not want to put in the effort to connect with the current manager. Or it could be as simple as a more vocal peer repeatedly interrupting another employee at a meeting.

Building a diverse team is not easy — it is hard because of the way things have always been. If companies are serious about increasing their diversity numbers, their leadership has to be all bought in, provide appropriate training to prevent all types of biases, be willing to watch out for unconscious biases and be bold enough to go that extra mile to support the entry and retention of diverse talent. Companies have to be willing to create the safe environment where any employee can speak up about biases without being labeled or fear facing backlash.

For companies to be successful in building out a diverse team, they have to start asking hard questions. How often does a senior leader speak up or call out when they see biases playing out in their organization? Have they started actively tracking the diversity actions of its leadership? How often does a meeting leader make a conscious effort to ensure that every person in the meeting is heard? How often does a company’s managers have proactive open discussions about unconscious bias with their teams and actively address them? Have they started publishing their diversity numbers at different levels in the organization?

The case for diversity in our teams, in our organizations is more compelling than ever. We live in a highly digitally connected world. And it’s a fact that diverse companies build better products, provide better services and achieve better performance for their employees and shareholders. Ultimately, companies that tap into the value of differing perspectives are the companies that will really survive and win.

Overcoming unconscious bias is just one of the actions that we can all start taking today to increase diversity in our workplaces.