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Why our un­con­scious prej­u­dices are bad for busi­ness

When you think of a bias, what do you im­me­di­ately as­so­ciate it with? Prej­u­dice, dis­crim­i­na­tion, ig­no­rance? Those ad­jec­tives are pre­dom­i­nately neg­a­tive. We see bias through a win­dow – it’s over there – it’s not here. It’s not how we be­have.

Wrong. If you are hu­man then you are bi­ased, and that’s a fact. But that’s not al­ways a bad thing. Bias is ac­tu­ally use­ful in many sit­u­a­tions and with­out these bi­ases we wouldn’t be able to func­tion. Bias is there to pro­tect us and keep us safe. In fact, we all have at least 150 cog­ni­tive bi­ases (ac­cord­ing to Daniel Khane­man’s book, Think­ing Fast And Slow) but bias is some­thing we ob­serve in other peo­ple, not in our­selves, and we strug­gle to ac­cept we are so rid­dled with bias be­cause we feel ashamed to ad­mit we may be prej­u­diced and ir­ra­tional. I per­son­ally have mul­ti­ple bi­ases – and I help peo­ple re­duce bias for a liv­ing. No, the irony isn’t lost on me!

As LGBT peo­ple, we know that some el­e­ments in so­ci­ety show bias to­wards us. And de­spite huge ad­vance­ments in the UK in terms of leg­is­la­tion, and hearts and minds, we still ex­pe­ri­ence bias in many ar­eas of our lives. For ex­am­ple, in the three months af­ter the EU Ref­er­en­dum last year, LGBT hate crime char­ity Galop noted a 147% rise in in­ci­dents re­ported to them.

But did you know, your own bi­ases can work against you?

The fact is, our bi­ases may con­flict with our val­ues. Look at trans­pho­bia and bi­pho­bia – these are bi­ases that ex­ist within the LGBT com­mu­nity. We even have bi­ases about our­selves. I’m ashamed to ad­mit it, as an out les­bian, but I hold judge­ments about other les­bians who do not fit into my group. Or maybe, look­ing at it an­other way, I feel I don’t fit into their group? It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble to be bi­ased against one­self. I didn’t come out un­til my 40s – that’s a long his­tory of de­nial – and dur­ing that time I built walls of bias about what be­ing gay meant and looked like. Now here I am; out, proud and ex­cep­tion­ally happy. Only through ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­po­sure have I dis­man­tled the bias bricks that built my wall.


One of the main bi­ases that hu­mans have is an “affin­ity bias”. I pre­fer to call it a “peo­ple like me pref­er­ence”. From an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive, we are con­di­tioned to feel safer with peo­ple we can iden­tify with. It’s very tribal and it makes per­fect sense. If I emerge from my cave and I see some­one rush­ing to­wards me who is not in my tribe, my ini­tial emo­tional re­ac­tion will be to fight or flee. I sim­ply don’t have the time to wait and see if I am wrong – I could be dead!

There is an old, yet strik­ingly rel­e­vant, brain teaser: a fa­ther and his son are in a car ac­ci­dent. The fa­ther is killed and the son is se­ri­ously in­jured. The son is taken to the hospi­tal where the sur­geon says, “I can­not op­er­ate, be­cause this boy is my son”. Fig­ures sug­gest up to 75% of all peo­ple can­not solve the puz­zle, and it takes most sev­eral min­utes to ad­just their think­ing: the boy’s mother is the sur­geon. Or per­haps, the par­ents are gay. But in­stinc­tively we match sur­geon with male, and so it takes time for our brains to un­learn this fast au­to­matic match­ing.

But un­learn we must be­cause bias can cre­ate se­ri­ous prob­lems in the work­place. In-group favouritism and the “like me pref­er­ence” man­i­fests in man­agers mak­ing poor hires and in­ter­nal work cul­tures splin­ter­ing rather than team­ing. In­clu­sion and bias are not good bed­fel­lows.

Con­fir­ma­tion bias is when you make up your mind about some­one or some­thing – and sub­con­sciously find “ev­i­dence” for why you are right. The is­sue is the “ev­i­dence” – it may not be ob­jec­tive and could well have come from some­one in your “in” group.

In-group/out-group bias is an­other to be aware of. The in-group are those peo­ple we trust, the peo­ple we see as in­di­vid­u­als. We tend to over­rate their com­pe­tency and for­give these in­di­vid­u­als more. We are more likely to ac­cept some­thing with­out ques­tion­ing it if the in­for­ma­tion comes from our “in” group.

Re­search il­lus­trates just how far­reach­ing our pref­er­ences are: 67% of the Bri­tish public ad­mits to feel­ing un­com­fort­able talk­ing to a dis­abled per­son; 45% of Bri­tish em­ploy­ers ad­mit­ted they would be less likely to hire an in­ter­vie­wee who they termed obese; job-seek­ers who list LGBT vol­un­teer­ing on their CVS are 5% less likely to get an in­ter­view; and 80% of em­ploy­ers ad­mit to mak­ing de­ci­sions based upon re­gional ac­cents. The UK ac­cents that could cost you a job are Birm­ing­ham, Liver­pool, New­cas­tle, Glas­gow and cock­ney (east Lon­don).

Some of these prej­u­dices may sound ridicu­lous to you, oth­ers less so, if you’re hon­est. But imag­ine the po­ten­tial loss to your busi­ness or or­gan­i­sa­tion if bias is al­lowed free rein. It’s time we all owned up and gave our bias some thought.

Bias re­sults in man­agers mak­ing poor hires and in­ter­nal work cul­tures splin­ter­ing

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