A way to address bias in the workplace that isn’t another HR-mandated training
First things first, I want to make one thing clear: you can’t make bias go away with corporate processes and procedures.
Too often I’ve seen a business roll out a shiny new anti-bias training, ticking another item off the company’s DEI checklist. While the intention can be positive, these trainings do little more than raise awareness about bias and typically don’t lead to change.
Because awareness alone doesn’t make the workplace more inclusive. What does make the workplace more inclusive are the decisions and actions we take once we have that awareness.
Reducing bias starts with a commitment to change and is followed up by thoughtful implementation of counter-bias techniques, which I’ll cover here. But before I get into those, there is one very important thing to understand, and that’s what leads to bias in the first place.
Bias and how our brains work
Think of your brain as operating under two different systems. System 1 is fast and instinctive, and System 2 is slow and analytical. The shortcuts (heuristics) taken by our fast-thinking System 1 brain help us move quickly through a complex world. And while they have their place, they can lead to irrational judgements and biases.
If these shortcuts go uncorrected by our slower-thinking System 2 brain, we can end up living on autopilot and increasing our bias. So, if we’re looking to reduce our biases, we need to improve the intuitive rules of our System 1 brain and/or override its snap judgments using our System 2 brain.
To do so, you can start by implementing these anti-bias techniques.
- Slow down
- Find your bias
- Make a change
- Switch positions
Understanding and implementing these techniques won’t eliminate bias completely (let’s face it, that’s probably impossible), but they are steps in the right direction.
Anti-bias Technique 1: Slow down
When you slow down the speed at which you work and make decisions, you engage your System 2 brain and reduce your need to rely on System 1 shortcuts. Slowing down puts your analytical and rational brain in charge.
You may not always be able to slow down, and that’s okay. You may need to make some decisions quickly. But for important processes – such as choosing the location of a new factory or hiring the right candidate for the job – you can improve your work culture by engaging your maximum brain capacity to make those important choices.
The more actively we involve ourselves in our actions, the less susceptible we are to bias.
Anti-bias Technique 2: Find your bias
I could have called this technique ‘post-mortem’ because that’s essentially what it is: reviewing your choices afterwards to find your eventual biases and weed them out.
Just like slowing down, it’s not practical to do this for every decision you and your team make. But for a few critical decisions, it can lead to big improvements.
And it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process, either. It can be as simple as taking the last ten minutes of a meeting to discuss questions like:
- We have tried to minimise bias and make an objective decision. I honestly think that’s what we did. Now, if bias crept in anywhere in the process, where would it be?
- If you had to raise any doubt or concern about this decision, what would it be? If today’s decision proves to have been the wrong decision a year from now, why would that be?
Not only does this practice improve decisions, but it also helps promote a cultural shift where individuals feel accountable for their own decision-making. This helps them become aware of their own biases and makes them want to reduce and avoid them.
Anti-bias Technique 3: Make a Change
Changing the way you do things reduces your reliance on System 1 thinking and requires you to actively engage your System 2 brain. Changing patterns and behaviours is tiring and demanding (so make sure you’re getting enough sleep) but it reduces the need for shortcuts and thus reduces bias.
Studies show that a powerful and effective way to reduce racial bias is to try and actively go against a stereotype you rely on. Since this engages your System 2 brain, you use critical thinking and reduce your reliance on those automated connections.
In fact, actively exploring other ways of thinking literally creates an alternate neural pathway in your brain. Even better, the more intensely and repetitively you do this, the stronger this alternative pathway becomes. Over time, you can actually teach your brain to think differently.
Anti-bias Technique 4: Switch Positions
Empathising with others and challenging our own egocentric biases takes mental effort, but they lead to new perspectives and improved reasoning.
Force yourself to consider different viewpoints and ask questions from an alternative perspective. Essentially, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Doing so will make you revise the way you argue and reason and open yourself up to alternative ways of thinking.
When considering a new candidate for a position, for example, this would look something like, ‘I want to reject this candidate. Now, what could be a good reason for somebody else to prefer her for this position?’
Egocentric bias is hard to overcome – you cannot see what you cannot see. But you can start by creating psychological self-distance (looking at yourself from a distance) and trying to consider diverse viewpoints. Doing so takes mental energy and engaged effort but will help broaden your understanding of others and reduce your reliance on personal biases.
Commit to Change
The awareness of bias is a great first step, but if you want to reduce bias, you need to commit to change and take action. Slow down when making critical decisions, look back on those decisions to identify possible biases, empathise with others, and try to identify and change your habitual thinking. Doing so can help create a work culture where individuals become more accountable for their decisions and aim to mitigate their own biases.
And when creating more inclusive spaces, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.