We are often not aware or want to admit to bias. But no person is immune to prejudice and favoritism because it would be difficult to function without them. The human mind categorizes and makes assumptions to learn and act more quickly.
No matter how smart or well-intentioned you may be, you cannot eliminate bias. Simply recognizing the ways our thinking can be flawed helps us make more informed and rational decisions when it matters.
If you lead an organization or shape its HR practices, you can implement strategies to help you and your colleagues reduce bias in key areas. As a result, you will improve the employee experience, customer experience, and business outcomes. We’ll show you how.
Types of Cognitive Bias
Quartz explained the different types of cognitive bias in terms of how they are designed to help us.
1. Filtering information
We focus on what is likely most important because it is:
- Recent or repeated
- Consistent with our beliefs
- Unusual or changed
For example, employees are not able to recall how much they or their colleagues worked every day. That is a lot of information. If they believe they work too much, they will naturally notice any time they work later – and forget anytime they left earlier – than their peers.
2. Providing meaning
When there is not enough information, we add:
- Patterns and stories
- Generalities and stereotypes
- Simplified numbers and probabilities
- Projected mindset and thoughts
For instance, managers may have limited knowledge and experience supervising different genders. If some of their female team members call in sick more than their male team members, managers can develop an innocent but harmful stereotype about the overall work ethic of all women.
3. Acting quickly
In the face of uncertainty, we make choices based on:
- Overconfidence in ourselves
- Simplicity, specificity, and immediacy
- Avoiding the risk of change
An example could be employee resistance to implementing software. Even if the software would make their work easier and reduce errors, it seems safer to continue with the manual processes they already invested in and understand.
4. Deciding what to remember
We edit memories after the fact by:
- Discarding specifics
- Reducing to key elements
Take, for instance, the way managers reflect on an employee’s performance for an annual review. Relying on memory highlights and general impressions, they can feel confident about who is top performer or not.
Each bias reinforces one another to shape how we think, feel, and act. These are all automatic and unconscious ways our brains try to help us. We cannot notice, remember, and value everything. These are not bad things only bad people do.
But bias is a problem. Our brain easily filters out information it doesn’t realize is important and makes us certain about a memory based largely on assumption.
Circumstances that require a fair and informed decision also require the ability to identify and minimize bias. Read on for strategies to equip your organization with this ability.
How can HR manage cognitive bias?
Recognize bias in yourself
To have a meaningful impact, you must start with yourself. Through education and personal application, you can better understand and help your business partners. For a free exercise in acknowledging bias, check out the Implicit Association Test.
Next, your role is to ensure leaders can recognize their own bias without feeling blamed or censored. Your coaching and support will determine whether good intentions to address bias have a positive or negative impact.
Contribute less bias
Remove the source of bias
Since so much of our bias in an unconscious, it is often more effective to minimize the information that is less relevant and more loaded. Instead of focusing energy on ignoring factors like race and gender, “blinding” people to those factors temporarily can help them pay attention to what matters most.
Blind recruitment is an example. When orchestras began auditioning musicians from behind a screen, they were five times as likely to select a woman as when they had watched musicians perform.
Some companies remove names of candidates from résumés to help avoid discrimination when selecting who proceeds to the interview stage. The BBC removed education information from job applications to prevent hiring based on class and beliefs about private schools.
Use clear and unbiased language
Workforce decisions are often based on qualitative data from sources like performance reviews and employee surveys. Evaluate what you say and ask for unintentional bias. Partner with leaders to define clear expectations and coach them on unbiased language.
For instance, a Stanford study showed women receive 2.5 times as much feedback on aggressive communication and one-third as much feedback linked to a business outcome. Guide performance conversations away from subjective judgments and toward developing specific skills.
Measure and adjust
Look to key metrics before and after interventions to determine if they are having the desired impact on bias and performance. For instance, continually observe changes in hiring and retention across key demographics.
When Xerox analyzed the data, they discovered commute time was much better at predicting performance than previous experience. Based on the evidence, Xerox uses an algorithm to score candidates which have increased retention and promotions. They do not factor in commute time, however, because it could discriminate based on the demographics of different neighborhoods.
Tracking and analysis can help you identify new forms of bias and adjust your strategies and techniques to be more effective. Metrics also allow you to set targets where your organization wants to see improvement in diversity, and hold leaders accountable for progress.
Reduce bias in analysis
Bring different data together
Facebook ensures performance evaluations are never based on a single source. Instead, they start with feedback from multiple peers. Then, managers get together to challenge each other before making decisions.
The same philosophy applies to other areas. When selecting a candidate, for instance, it’s common practice to consider the resume, interviews with key people, and assessments of skills and personality. The more objective the screening criteria and the more accurate the simulation exercises, the better the candidate selection.
Bring different people together
Leadership diversity reduces actual and perceived bias, which increases employee engagement and innovation. One of the most effective ways to increase diversity is sponsorship: when a person in power advocates for a person with the potential to develop their skills and gain exposure.
Since informal mentorships often form between people who are similar, a formal program can help make those opportunities more broadly available. HR can help mentors/sponsors relate to people from different backgrounds by finding challenges or aspirations in common.
Educate and train consistently
Tie training to practical steps managers and employees can take in their everyday work. Include diversity and inclusion in all relevant training and practices, such as hiring and performance management.
Companies like Microsoft and VMware make unconscious bias education and training a regular required part of performance management. Ensure your employees understand bias is a shared responsibility, not only for managers or minority groups to identify and address.
Manage the perception of bias
Even an impartial decision can hurt your organization if it seems unfair. It is not always enough to minimize bias if the steps you take are behind closed doors.
The Center for Talent Innovation found employees with disabilities, people of color, and those born outside the country were most likely to perceive bias. The perception, accurate or not, reduced morale, performance, and retention. Those who perceived bias were 2.6 times as likely to have withheld ideas or solutions.
When employees see the process is fair, they are more willing to accept the outcomes. As much as possible, be transparent about the typical processes for decisions like hiring, promoting, and succession planning.
How can leaders manage cognitive bias?
Recognize bias in yourself
The first step is acknowledging your perception may not be the reality, and it may not be helpful. For instance, research indicates more than half of a performance evaluation is determined by the supervisor’s personal traits and have nothing to do the employee’s performance.
Up to 90% of all managers view some members of their team as part of an in-group and provide those employees more autonomy, feedback, and recognition. As soon as five days into the job, managers may categorize an employee into an in-group or out-group.
The out-group is managed with more command and control, which reinforces the label by limiting their ability and motivation to grow and perform. No matter how well-intentioned the extra support and supervision, lack of confidence and appreciation lowers employee engagement, performance, and retention.
This dysfunctional bias is self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing. Managers notice good performance from the in-group as competence while dismissing good performance from the out-group as luck. As a leader, you must be able to admit your judgment may not be fair.
Contribute less bias
Coach with a growth mindset
When managers have a fixed mindset, they believe their employees start the job with innate talents and shortcomings. Management is then about putting people in the right place to leverage their fixed abilities – and removing people who do not have those abilities.
When you lead with a growth mindset, however, you continue looking for ways to help your team learn and develop skills. Because you believe people can change, you are better at noticing and coaching change.
Carol Dweck has studied growth mindset for years. She found when managers recalled times when they had to learn something new and were successful, they were more willing to coach and provide constructive suggestions for improvement. Organizational cultures with a growth mindset are more successful in terms of productivity and agility.
Empower employee voice
Asking for feedback then ignoring it is more demotivating than never asking for it in the first place. Inclusive and effective leaders ask the team, really listen, and respond accordingly. When you are making a judgment about an employee’s performance, for instance, encourage them to seek out their own information from data sources that are meaningful to them. They know themselves and their work better than anyone.
Self-service employee portals not only save administration time, they also provide more accurate data the employee trusts because it comes from them. If your employee clocks in and out of work every day, they accept the accurate work hours calculated better than if it comes from the supervisor’s observations.
Reduce bias in analysis
Involve multiple perspectives
The best way to minimize the risk of your personal bias is to bring in different perspectives. Bringing more people into the conversation reduces the influence of each person’s bias. When you convene a diverse group for a significant decision, start by finding common goals. Look for data from trusted sources and identify facts everyone can agree to.
Help check assumptions
Since your brain will automatically focus on the information that supports your opinions, take your team through an exercise of supporting an opposing view. Encourage them to be creative and show appreciation for solid logic and evidence, no matter what argument it supports. Participate in the exercise and role model how to acknowledge and balance bias.
Maintain ongoing communication
Continuous dialogue is a key part of leading your team. Before a significant meeting, check your assumptions and separate feelings from facts. Assess your beliefs about your employees, their performance, and their abilities. Consider other factors and look for the most objective sources of information. Remain open in all conversations so you can adapt to new information for the best course of action.
The human mind uses bias to respond quickly, but that can lead to poor decisions and even discrimination. As a leader in your organization, you can implement strategies to minimize bias for a more inclusive work environment. By bringing diverse perspectives together effectively for more thoughtful decisions, you can better serve your customer needs and improve your business results.