Highlights – Unconscious Bias

If you have a brain, you have bias. We all have unconscious bias. Research has found that employees who experience workplace bias feel alienated, withhold ideas and solutions, and would not refer people to their employer. What are these biases and are they too hardwired in society? Moderator Jawdat Akid (JA), Managing Client Partner FranklinCovey Middle East, spoke to guest experts Eleni Kitra (EK), Head of Automotive & Mobility Meta MENA, Patrycja (Patricia) Riera (PR), Founder & CEO at Inclusionem and FJ Smith (FJS), Executive Career Coach, Founder at Clearview.

JA: Unconscious bias has a bigger influence on our decisions than we realize. Why is it so important for us to identify our biases?

FJS: We are more comfortable with our own kind. There’s something unconscious within us that makes us judge one another. In an organizational setting, it is important to be more conscious about having objective criteria when you look at profiles of interviewees about what they can bring to the company.

PR: Hidden biases impact the whole organization, and if you don’t intentionally seek to understand where they are, you will not be able to unleash the full potential of your employees or retain talent. Organizations can create a healthy work environment where people can be themselves to impact the performance of the organization. Beyond recruitment, it’s important to look at how employees are behaving in meetings, how roles and projects are assigned and how performance is measured. Having a flatter organization rather than top-down hierarchical structure creates more freedom from bias.

EK: Bias creates stereotypes. A truly diverse company encourages people to be more challenged, since they have to interact with people who may be quite different from them, making outcomes of team work more effective, which in turn actually breeds an innovative culture. When you try to create homogenous groups of people who are similar to each other, they won’t be able to deliver products or services to people who are quite different. Unless you are intentional about having a high value for diversity, you won’t even see the biases. It is not an easy task and the conversations around this topic can be quite challenging, but the outcome is valuable and does impact the financial returns in the long term.

JA: What is the messaging that an organization needs to create?

 EK: First of all, set the standards top-down. It’s a leadership responsibility and not an HR task. Next, recognize every single effort implemented towards breaking biases. And then, track the progress and report it. If you do these three simple things consistently, you will be able to create the culture that is beneficial for all stakeholders as well as the company’s bottom line.

FJS: It is also good to call out the bias and discuss it. It is not a taboo subject. And it needs to be communicated in an honest and authentic manner. It is essential that biases are confronted, and changes made as a team.

PR: Organizations acknowledged as the best places to work are those that place a high value for inclusion and good at communicating this through all that they do. They really focus on creating communities where people can give their best, have shared goals, and work together towards it. The sense of belonging and working towards impact is quite powerful and profitable.

PR: It helps to take time and more effort in decision-making by intentionally seeking out different points of view. The quick decisions often tend to have hidden biases resulting unconsciously from our comfort zones.

EK: As we move spend more time in the virtual world, we need to feed the best practice data to the AI and algorithm tools, so that there is less bias in the way AI is going to behave.

JA: There is a need for humility and self-awareness to recognize your own biases. How does one inculcate change in an organization?

 EK: Empathy is vital for every individual and the organization to be able to become more self-aware. Trust is important, but this is more meaningful when accompanied by a sense of curiosity. It encourages people to talk to each other and see things from different perspectives.

FJS: If you better understand where people are coming from then even if you don’t agree, at least there is a higher level of awareness in the organization. Its about building a culture of hearing other viewpoints and increasing cognitive diversity.

PR: Unfortunately, we don’t always look for humility when we recruit leaders, but it’s a significant character trait of good leadership. Do we measure for these important soft skills in an organization? Without a culture that allows for freedom of differences, we will not be able to tackle bias. A humble leader builds inclusive teams. Another necessary attribute is the courage to disagree. Sometimes organizations mistakenly think that it is healthy when there is a consensus, and everyone agrees on everything. However, if you can allow for disagreements and have this space in the middle where we can create things together through our disagreements by honouring and respecting each other, then that is an evolved and enlightened organization.

EK: Sometimes the language we use impacts how we see things. It would be better to call the ‘soft skills’ (often associated with women) as ‘critical skills’ that everyone should inculcate and needed in organizations.

PR: Character traits are as important as gifts and passions, especially in leadership. Research has repeatedly revealed that empathy and humility are important traits of a good leader. How we create performance reviews and promotion scores need to align with organizational policies, processes and structures. It is important to look at your company’s data – you will find clues in there. Check the communication language used to men and women employees that there are no hidden biases. Similarly, analyse projects assigned and whether they are truly gender agnostic. Regarding KPIs for D&I, you need to have specific goals and work out how you will achieve these.

FJS: In my experience, companies don’t ask interview questions based on their values, such as transparency, inclusivity and diversity.

EK: Satisfaction surveys designed by organizations should track progress and measure how the values of D&I are being implemented at all levels. The ‘soft metrics’ need to be as important as the ‘hard metrics’. Whatever the KPI business rules may be, leaders and all employees should be measured for these.

PR: We just completed a survey for three thousand employees in the middle eastern Africa region, for inclusion. We looked at the perception of inclusion in the organization and leadership. Most people responded positively in terms of how they feel from the lens of inclusion, uniqueness and belonging. However, there was also data that suggested that leaders in the organization did not give enough freedom to their team members in making decisions. A significant question that a leader should ask is “What will people say about me when I leave?”