Recognizing and avoiding unconscious bias

Howard Ross, founder of Cook Ross and partner at Udarta consulting, discusses why unconscious and conscious biases aren't just wrong, but also major disadvantag...

Often, bias comes not in the form of intentional exclusion of peoples from various environments and cultures, but an unconscious bias in the culture and minds of the participants that excludes certain peoples and behaviors, without actually noticing they’re doing it. To understand how these unconscious biases can be tackled, and how noticing and curbing them can be extremely beneficial to a workplace’s performance and culture, we spoke with Howard Ross, founder of Cook Ross and partner at Udarta.

ABERMAN: So, tell us a bit about organizational change from your perspective. What are you getting at?

ROSS: Well I think, Jonathan, one of the things that we’re getting a better understanding of now, maybe more than ever before, because of neurocognitive science research and things like this, is the impact of groups on people’s behavior. And often, when we’re working in organizations, we pay more attention to individual behavior, but not enough of an understanding of how the impact of the culture of the organization and the group impacts people. And so, one of the things we’re doing is trying to help people understand this dynamic of group behavior, and look at how we can shift an organization so that not just people as individuals change, but the organization begins to create a culture in which excellent performance is just expected. It’s just what everybody sort of naturally participates in.

ABERMAN: I hear a lot of people talk about culture, but what exactly is a culture when you’re talking about an organization?

ROSS: Well, culture occurs when any group of people come together for an extended period of time for some shared purpose. And so, we can see that in organizations, we can see that in religions, we can see that in communities. And what happens in culture is we create normative behaviors, means of behaving, and we know the simple ones. We know for example here in the United States, I reach out my hand to you, and you know to reach out to shake hands to greet me. But when I was in villages in India, and I reached my hand out instinctively, people didn’t quite know what to do, because there they greet each other with the namaste vow. So, these norms of our cultures begin to create expectations for us, and they’re very hard to shake, because a lot of it becomes unconscious, almost like an unconscious organization.

ABERMAN: It’s the difference between a written rule and an unwritten rule. It’s the difference between knowing what’s expected of you because somebody tells you, and knowing what’s expected of you because it’s always been that way.

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ROSS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think that you can think about it in all areas of life. You know, even something as simple as going home and sitting down for dinner, how many of us have a seat at our dinner table? Even though all the chairs are the same, this is our seat, and if we come in for some reason, for example, I came in one evening and my son had a friend over, and his friend was sitting in my chair. I walked in the room and for a moment, I didn’t know where to sit. You now, it’s kind of silly, obviously, there are all kinds of chairs, but it really speaks to the habitual nature of human beings, and why we fall into these patterns.

ABERMAN: Whether we follow these patterns willingly or unwillingly, I assume that it makes it really hard to change an organization.

ROSS: Yeah. I mean, it’s like anything else. It’s challenging for sure, but it’s possible, and one of the ways that we found it’s possible is by bringing all of these dynamics up to consciousness. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, once said that until we make the unconscious conscious, it will rule our lives and we will call it fate. Most times, in my experience, when organizations try to change and fail, it’s because they haven’t recognized some of these patterns, haven’t brought them up and figured out how to deal with some of these patterns, and made a conscious effort to not only put in new behaviors, but also to communicate the expectation that people will follow those new behaviors.

ABERMAN: It’s not surprising to me, therefore, learning about and reading about your expertise theory of organizational development, that you then went on, and you really looked at the issues of unrecognized and unspoken bias. Can you talk to me a little about why that’s important, why an effective leader not only has to be thinking about culture, but also about bias to be successful?

ROSS: I’ve worked in diversity inclusion for 30 years, and you know, one of the things that we found not that long ago really, last 15, 20 years, is how profound the impact of unconscious bias is in our behavior. I mean a lot of times, we think that when people act in ways that are, for example, more difficult for women to be successful, more difficult for people of color or others to be successful, we think that it’s intentional. But in fact, people very rarely wake up in the morning and wring their hands and say, how can I suppress women and people of color today? That’s not usually the way it happens.

Often in fact, if it happened that obviously, it might be easier to address. But the more subtle way it happens is, I’m interviewing somebody, and when I meet them, I kind of have this sense of something about this person I like, and so I make it a little bit easier for them in the interview. Not intentionally, but just because I’m feeling more inclined to like them. Somebody else comes in, and I’m distracted, or have a more of a negative first impression. The interview doesn’t go as well, and the next day I say to somebody, gee, I want to hire the first person. It doesn’t even occur to me that I’ve added anything to those interviews.

And so, one of the things we say to people and organizations all the time is, even though we tend to think of bias as a social justice issue, and for equity and fairness, which of course is really important. It’s also a stupid way to make talent management decisions, if you’re hiring somebody without even knowing the criteria that are making you feel like you want to hire them.

ABERMAN: In my context as a professional investor over the years, one of the things that you see is a very strong bias on the part of male venture capitalists investing in male-led companies, even though the statistics show clearly that women-led and minority-led startups actually outperform consistently.

ROSS: Yeah. And in fact, a brilliant psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, won the Nobel Prize for studying exactly some of those dynamics in investment. And not only people, but also even making investments based on biases that refute the actual data that’s right in front of people, and they make them anyway, because they’re inclined to feel like making them.

ABERMAN: Well other than reading your books, if I’m a business executive, can you give me three best practices you’d recommend that I, and anybody like me, adopt to really be an effective change manager?

ROSS: Yeah. I think the first thing would be to have a clear sense of where you are and where you’re going. It’s like walking into the mall. What’s the first thing you do? You walk up to that map that shows you where everything is. And what’s the first thing you look at on the map? It’s that arrow that says ‘you are here,’ because unless you know where you are, there’s no way for you to know how to get to where you’re going. So we want to identify really clearly where we want to be, what kind of a culture we want to be, and that should be clearly articulated in a way that everybody understands.

And then we go back and look at where we are now, and say, how are we measuring up to where we want to be? And that gap between the two gives us the ability to do the second piece, which is then to put in the kinds of education, training, systems and structures, those kinds of things that allow us to move from point A to Point B. And then the third part is, in order to see if we’re being successful, to put in some kind of a measurement or metrics component, that allows us to hold ourselves accountable to that change, so that we’re not just guessing that we’re there, we can actually measure it each step of the way, and see where the breakdowns are happening, so that we can keep moving in a positive direction.

ABERMAN: Bottom line, before I let you go: it sounds to me like, therefore, creating the right culture is an intentional act, it’s not an accidental one.

ROSS: Yeah. I think this is so important for people to understand, Jonathan: your culture is creating itself. The question is, are you going to do it consciously and intentionally, or are you going to do it unconsciously, and be a victim of it? And all too often, it’s unfortunately the latter, and not the former. And so, it’s so important for us to be very conscious about the kind of cultures we’re creating, if we expect to have organizational excellence.

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