Is unconscious bias affecting your company communications?

Are your communications suffering because of biases you’re not aware of?  We are all much more aware of discrimination on grounds of sexuality, gender, age, disabilities and skin colour and most companies have worked hard to address assumptions made about people on these bases for some years, some more successfully than others.

However many more are not aware of the split second judgements we make about people and situations at a less conscious level.  The brain is designed to categorise information and people – they organise the incredible amount of information we receive in a myriad of ways – into something we can understand.  To give us a way of retrieving that information to use when needed. Some of this is done without us being aware of it.

We are all different but each of us has unconscious biases based on our personal experience, our backgrounds and our cultural environment that we are not conscious of.  When we meet people they are often categorised in our brain, influenced by the factors above without any level of awareness at a conscious level.  Some of these factors may be accents, education level, even the education institutions we chose, piercings, tattoos, haircut and colour.  Some assumptions about these same people are used by our brain to ‘file’ them based on information that may not be correct.  Have you ever been aware of assuming an ‘attitude’ from someone because of piercings, for example, rather than seeing them simply as an accessory choice?

The truth is we all have these unconscious biases and the trick is understanding which yours are and how to mitigate their impact on your organisation, your work and understanding that they can impact on your communications both with your team and clients.

Why would they impact on your communications with your team?  In fact it could be more significant than that.  It could impact on your recruitment and retention of your team members.  When you advertise – how much of the advertisement is influenced by you wanting ‘people like you’ to join your team?  It is easy to grasp why this might be true – we understand people ‘like us’, there is a presumed ‘way to do things’ and an assumption of shared values.  In a team I worked with some years ago, as part of a development exercise, we were all asked to fill out a Myers Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire.  The outcome was fascinating – more than half of the team shared our boss’s personality type – ENTP.  Nobody was more surprised than the boss herself.  It told us two very valuable things about our team 1) unconsciously we were favouring ‘people like us’ and 2) that we had significant gaps in our team that should ideally be filled.  Myers Briggs is, of course, a type indicator but it did indicate that our team potentially ‘had a type’.

Have a look at your friends?  Are there similarities amongst most of them?  A colleague was once asked, in a team exercise to identify the similarities amongst her own closest friends.  She was surprised to see that most were liberal leaning, regarded as middle class and had at least one degree – in most cases – two.  Her own group of friends had a vast range of ethnic backgrounds and skin colours but still she hadn’t seen that they ‘were like her’ until she did this particular exercise.

A former boss of mine – an extremely successful Australian Minister – who has since gone on to be Australia’s most prominent Ambassadors did not see his own unconscious bias, despite being a particularly accessible leader and an avowed feminist.  He saw young males as ‘like him’, understood their ambitions and was conscious of giving them opportunities to reach these ambitions.  Despite not having a misogynist bone in this body he simply did not see ‘young females’ in the same light.  There was no unconscious discrepancy on the basis of colour or ethnic background.  I suspect he would’ve been horrified had it been pointed out to him that his unconscious bias was giving males a continuing distinct advantage over the females in his employ.  Apply this very common unconscious bias over all male parliamentarians in Australia alone and you can see why women are still underrepresented in most western parliaments.

It becomes easy now to see how recruitment can be and is influenced by these unconscious biases.  The ‘feeling’ a recruiter has as they interview of ‘I can work with this person’ is very likely to come from ‘they are like me’ and ‘they will fit into our team’.  These are no small factors – it is important that a new team member complement your existing team, but is it based on actual qualities or perceived qualities? It is not a stretch to then see how some will benefit from the promotions and bonuses systems in the same way.

Further if you target the people you sense are the ‘same as you’ in your internal communications then inadvertently you are very likely to be unconsciously excluding others who communicate or receive information differently.  Are your recruit advertisements excluding candidates who might feel as though they won’t fit in but may have valuable, diverse skills and experience that would enhance your organisation’s performance?

This takes us on to external communications.  It is fair to say that thanks to globalisation, free movement of people into different labour markets throughout the world and, in particular, from the EU – our clients are now more diverse than ever.  Much has been made about, and to good effect no doubt, of understanding cultural norms and expectations where global companies operate in different markets throughout the world.  However are we excluding people through the nature of our communications because of the assumptions we are making about the people we offer our services and products to?

For a company to excel in an ever changing world the only way to ensure that your clients have the best chance of receiving the best service as they recognise it, is by recognising the diversity of your client base and matching it with a diverse workforce.  Not only in the areas we now recognise as discrimination around physical attributes but the less obvious as well.

In both instances – internal and external communications these biases will show in your behaviour when they are triggered, with us sending equally unconscious micro-messages to your team and clients.

The ideal resolution for your company is to identify your’s and your team members’ unconscious biases and develop a strategy to ensure that your risk of displaying these unconscious biases are mitigated effectively.  This cannot take place until the biases are identified.

A resource you may wish to consider is the Implicit Association Test – a free online test found at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

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