Combating Unconscious Bias and Its Impact on Inclusion

The coaching journey of the last year has been one of immense learning, full of new discoveries, yet one topic consistently recurs as my key takeaway and personal commitment – how to utilize my new skills to help others embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace. My interest in the topic was initiated by my 21-year-old daughter, who recently started to look for graduate roles in the workplace. During the process, while she was being assessed, she was doing her own assessment of each company’s culture, specifically with regard to diversity and inclusion. While all the companies in which she interviewed highlighted diversity as a priority, she made her own assessments during her interviews, especially in her interactions with the senior people who appeared near the end of the process. She has decided that an inclusive culture is what she needs in order to be successful and happy in her work. To help my daughter  prepare, we reviewed the interviewing companies’ online presence and annual reports. There was one thing in common across the board – the senior management teams were 90% male and white. Not a shock, but it is telling.

Diversity is visible and can be easily measured with an online review of the faces of the management team. But what about inclusion, or an inclusive culture? This is what my daughter was trying to evaluate during her interviews. Inclusion is far more difficult to define and measure, and this can lead to a situation where management implements a diversity program and then believes the job is done. However, those who the programmes are intended to support do not necessarily see it the same way. This disconnect can be seen in the data below, from BCG’s survey of 16,000 people worldwide (Krentz, 2019). The perception of white male staff older than 45, compared with that of diverse employee groups, is striking. These older white males are typically the group responsible for budgets, promotions, and setting strategy. The silver lining is that white male staff under 45 have a similar response rate to that of the diverse employee groups, indicating a more positive outlook for inclusive culture in the future.

I was lucky enough to be in Kirstan Marnane’s syndicate at Meyler Campbell. One of the concepts Kirstan emphasized was the power of helping coachees filter out their interference, allowing them to think more clearly and deeply. The concept of interference comes from work by Timothy Gallwey in his Inner Game book series, which began with tennis but has since moved beyond sport. Gallwey introduced this equation: ‘Performance = Potential – Interference’ (Gallwey, 1974). This concept really resonated with me and got me thinking about the main sources of interference when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

The first source of interference could be belief. Does a business leader believe there is a link between diversity and better business performance? Despite the overwhelming body of evidence that diversity does improve performance, there are business leaders who question the link. For them, I have added extracts from two global thought leaders, McKinsey and BCG, in the reference section. 

The second source of interference is unconscious bias, and this is more difficult for a leader to identify. We all have it to some degree, and it is having an oversized impact on diversity and inclusion. Unconscious bias is deeply rooted; it is a shortcut that avoids engaging the analytical functions of our brains. This means it operates with little energy drain; it is quick and feels instinctive. It is useful when we are in danger and helps us manage vast amounts of information. 

Around 200 biases have been documented and can be divided into four categories (Benson, Buster, 2016).

1. Too much information – the brain is bombarded with information and looks for what is familiar to grab onto (confirmation bias).

2. Not enough meaning – the brain fills in the blanks and looks for familiar patterns.

3. The need to act fast – trust your instincts.

4. Deciding what information to remember – generalizations are easy to remember, leading to stereotyping.

BCG identified unconscious bias as a key actor in their 2019 report “Fixing the Flawed Approach to Diversity” (Krentz, 2019). However, we must be careful that training on unconscious bias does not eliminate people’s ownership for their actions. Lasana Harris, a neuroscientist at University College London, was quoted in The Guardian newspaper commenting that the concept of unconscious bias should not absolve people of discriminatory behaviour. “If you’re aware of these associations then you can bring to bear all of your critical skills and intelligence to see it’s wrong to think like that.” (Devlin, 2018)

A proposed coaching technique:  Surface, Recognize, Explore

1. Surface – Increase awareness of unconscious bias with the coachee.

2. Recognize – Practice “bias spotting”. Use questions to test for the presence of biases.

3. Explore – Help the coachee explore the different outcomes that are possible if they remove the bias assumption.

Surface – Ahead of a coaching engagement, a coachee typically undertakes some assessments to increase their self-awareness. These take multiple forms and have varying levels of complexity, but none adequately cover unconscious bias. For many of us, unconscious bias is an “unknown unknown”, a term Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, famously tried to explain in relation to the Iraq war. To overcome this, a coachee can increase their knowledge of unconscious bias as a topic before coaching starts. This is not an attempt to define or profile the coachee’s personal unconscious bias. The jury is still out on whether testing for bias can provide meaningful results. The Harvard Implicit Project has tested >30 million people via its website. However, the validity of the tests is being debated in academia as multiple examinations have shown that the results are not strongly reproducible (Devlin, 2018).

Recognize – Setting up the coaching session using Nancy Kline’s thinking environment (Kline, 2016), with particular emphasis on attention, equality, diversity, and use of incisive questions, will help the coach be on the lookout for any of the 200+ potential biases. I call this ‘bias spotting’, akin to ‘strengths spotting’. When encountering a potential bias, a simple challenge could be to ask, “What would you have to believe for the opposite to be true also?” (Davidovich, 2018) If the coachee cannot imagine a situation where the opposite could be true, I would consider this an indicator that unconscious bias could be creating interference with the thought process. But be careful, as you can fall foul of your own confirmation bias.  

Explore – Help the coachee look at the situation from different perspectives. This can be done by using Nancy Kline’s incisive question technique (Kline, 2016), eliminating a limiting assumption (the potential bias) and replacing it with a liberating and true assumption. This allows the coachee to eliminate the interference and access new thinking on the topic that was previously blocked by bias.

Example of a coaching conversation:

John, the coach, is working with Henry, the CEO of a UK-based technology company, NOVO. The company is growing quickly and expanding into new markets in APAC.

John: What can I help you think about today?

Henry: You know we are growing really quickly and I need to strengthen the APAC leadership team. I am thinking about two individuals, either of which could do a great job, so it’s not easy.  Claudia has been the commercial leader in Europe. She has exceeded targets and built a great team. She is very keen on the APAC opportunity. But I am not sure she can repeat the performance in APAC; it is a different world. I am also thinking about Pierre. He is not as dynamic, but he has delivered in tough situations in the past and is a safe pair of hands. He will be retiring in two years, which gives him time to develop a local leader.

John: You said APAC is a different world. What are the differences that you are most concerned about?

Henry: Actually, I don’t really know. I have not spent that much time in the region, but I hear customers can be very demanding and you need to take a firm hand with them.

John: Could we try thinking in a different way?

Henry: Sure, I am happy to give it a go.

John: If you assumed that customers in APAC were going to be on par with your most difficult European customers, how would that impact your thinking?

Henry: When I think about it this way, then Claudia has a lot of advantages. She has proven she can grow the business and build a team, and has turned around some difficult customer relationships. But I don’t know how a female leader will be accepted in that region. I know it’s a sexist comment, but I cannot afford to get this one wrong.

John: What would it take for you to satisfy yourself that gender is not an issue in APAC?

Henry: That is not easy. It is obviously a sensitive topic. I have always believed in equality and I have been Claudia’s sponsor throughout her time at NOVO. She is clearly the right choice. Let me talk to a friend who lived in Singapore for ten years. She really enjoyed it, but I cannot remember any specifics. I am sure she can help me understand the challenges. Maybe she can recommend some networks or support for Claudia, if she takes the role.

Being clear with coachees during contracting:

This approach to coaching may not appear to be purely non-directive or explicitly follow the interest of the client. It is the role/obligation of the coach to raise the coachee’s awareness and help them take responsibility for acting upon it. Potential bias spotting is just an added tool for a coach. However, as bias is at the core of who we are, it is critical that this approach is highlighted and expressly permitted by the client during the contracting phase of any engagement. 

Conclusion:

Having been a global citizen for the last 30 years, living on three very different continents and spending most work weeks in different countries, working with local teams, from China to Chile, the US to Finland, I have become more aware of some of my biases and have had plenty of time on airplanes to think about them. I have overcome some of the typical cultural stereotype biases that can be common, and are indeed still perpetuated by many media outlets, but there are plenty more lurking in the shadows.

I am at the next stage in my working life, and my time in the Mastered program has given me time to think about what is next. My daughter’s interview experiences triggered a focus on my own deeply rooted values of fairness and equality and this, in turn, instigated my interest in diversity and inclusion, an area where I am motivated to use my coaching skills to make a positive contribution. The case for diversity and an inclusive company culture benefiting business performance is not factually debated, but there are still many senior leaders and leadership teams whose actions show that they do not believe it or that their unconscious bias is getting in the way. I can help these leaders recognize their biases, acknowledge them, and work on them. Diversity is visible; you know whether you have it or not. Inclusion is part of the corporate culture and not easy to measure; this is where the focus of leaders needs to be if they are going to unlock the potential that diversity promises. If I can help leaders recognize how to unlock this potential through inclusion that will constitute success for me.

References:

Benson, Buster. “Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.” Better Humans, 1 Sept. 2016, betterhumans.coach.me/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18.

Davidovich, Carlos. “Unconscious Cognitive Biases in the Coaching Practice.” Institute of Coaching, 22 Feb. 2018, instituteofcoaching.org/blogs/unconscious-cognitive-biases-coaching-practice.

Devlin, Hannah. “Unconscious Bias: What Is It and Can It Be Eliminated?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Dec. 2018, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/02/unconscious-bias-what-is-it-and-can-it-be-eliminated.

Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. Batman Books, 1974.

Hunt, Vivian, et al.  “Why Diversity Matters.” McKinsey & Company, Jan. 2015, www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters.

“Why Diversity Matters”, McKinsey,  (Hunt, Vivian et al, 2015)

  • In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8 percent.
  • In the United Kingdom, greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in our data set: for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5 percent.
  • The unequal performance of companies in the same industry and the same country implies that diversity is a competitive differentiator shifting market share toward more diverse companies.

Kline, Nancy. Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind. Cassell Illustrated, 2016.

Krentz, Matt, et al. “Fixing the Flawed Approach to Diversity.” Https://Www.bcg.com, Boston Consulting Company LLP, 17 Jan. 2019, www.bcg.com/publications/2019/fixing-the-flawed-approach-to-diversity.aspx.

Lorenzo, Rocío, et al. “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.” Https://Www.bcg.com, Boston Consulting Group LLP, 23 Jan. 2018, www.bcg.com/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.aspx,

“How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation”, BCG, (Lorenzo, Rocío, et al, 2018)

  • Small Changes – Big Results: Of the six dimensions of diversity we considered, all showed a correlation with innovation. But the most significant gains came from changing the makeup of the leadership team in terms of the national origin of executives, range of industry backgrounds, gender balance, and career paths. Age and educational focus showed a lesser effect.

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