Boost business performance by banishing unconscious bias, writes professor Gloria Moss.
Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs believed hiring talent was the most important activity he undertook, personally interviewing 5,000-plus applicants during his career.
However, the concept of the ‘best’ is subjective and ill-defined – we often hire people who appeal to the recruitment panel, despite research by management consulting firm McKinsey showing that diverse businesses deliver 35% better results than non-diverse ones.
Unconscious bias is something that even the most thoughtful of us is guilty of displaying. For example ‘appearance bias’ predisposes us to think that the best-looking individual will be the most talented. Perhaps this helps explain why close to 60% of US CEOs are more than 6 feet tall, compared to only 15% of the US population.
Types of bias
New types of bias are always emerging. A recent Harvard Business Review article described how being the only woman on a shortlist shortens the odds of failure.
The status quo of the shortlist is such as to make a woman (or BAME person, for example) an unremarkable member of the workforce. Having two women in the final shortlist makes the odds of hiring a women 79.14 greater. Similarly, the odds of hiring a minority were 193.72 greater if there were at least two minority candidates in the final shortlist.
Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s stated benchmark of good selection – whether the person is someone he could work with – smacks of ‘affinity bias’ which occurs when positive reactions are evoked by someone with whom we feel we have an affinity.
Affinity often aligns with similarity bias with people “slightly guilty of hiring themselves”, in the words of Peter Souter, former president of the British Design and Art Direction association, railing against the male domination of the design industry.
The forces of congruity within an organisation can impede congruity with customers. However, it can be difficult to achieve an ‘outside-in’ perspective in selection due to “the inertia when things are done a particular way”, as articulated by Kathy Gornik, former chairwoman of the American Consumer Electronics Association.
It’s not just the culture that needs to change, but our ability to step beyond personal preference. There is evidence that men tend to have more masculine schema of leadership than women, who have more democratic or transformational styles.
Research shows that male subordinates have been found to devalue women’s enactment of leadership and, in research I conducted, male recruiters disregarded the transformational criteria in the job description, assessing candidates against self-imposed masculine schema.
A similar finding emerges from research I conducted on design, charting schema used in male and female-created designs and finding men and women opting for designs created by their own gender when given a choice.
Recognising unconscious bias at work
The list of biases does not end here. There is the halo/horns effect (the tendency for individual positive or negative characteristics to influence perceptions of other features) and the contrast effect (the tendency to compare candidates with each other rather than against the job spec).
Then there’s confirmation bias (searching for, interpreting favourably, and recalling information in a way that confirms pre-existing beliefs) and attribution bias (ascribing others’ achievements to luck, not ability).
Added to all this is selective perception and people’s tendency to see problems in terms of their own background and experience: for example, working women tend to have more egalitarian beliefs than non-working women, with implications for their sons, since a mother’s beliefs about female roles is a strong predictor of her son’s.
The importance of selection and probability of fair process being derailed gives each of us a core role to play in overcoming unconscious bias. This may begin with offering training in best practice recruitment as well as metacognition – thinking that enables the understanding, analysis and regulation of thought processes.