Bias at Work

Diversity doesn’t thrive without inclusion. Here’s why.
Jun 29, 2015 6:00 PM ET
Campaign: Thought Leadership


Scott Horton | Delta Concepts Consulting, Inc.

That uncomfortable middle seat on a sold out flight. It’s not just a less than ideal place to endure airline travel. It’s where I found out that I, a corporate diversity and inclusion consultant, am guilty of profiling people. Yes, I confess: I lump people in categories based on the way they look and other data my unconscious mind dredges up.

I know better, having taught thousands of executives and managers about inclusion – that term that joined the word “diversity” in most of your company’s policy statements and training classes about 10 years ago or so.

I’ll explain what inclusion means to me in a moment.

But let’s go back to that packed airplane. I was feeling lucky that I was able to nab the last seat on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles for a last minute client commitment. The first to board in my row, the seat on either side of me was temporarily free. I started eyeballing the other passengers coming down the aisle toward my row knowing quite well that someone will be sitting to my left and right for the next few hours.

It awakened quickly, that little voice in my head that started sorting the passengers into “please sit here” and “please keep walking.” A useless exercise since seats are assigned on my airline of choice.

Here’s the thing: The snap judgment evaluation process is natural, human, and nearly universal. If I do it, you probably do it. It’s fairly innocuous if you don’t act on a biased impulse.

Let’s discuss why it matters.

Unconscious Bias

We notice things about others, process that data instantaneously in our unconscious mind, project past associations or judgments onto others and just that fast, we often determine if we think the other person is warm, competent, friendly, annoying, or if they possess any other number of personal traits. I don’t think it makes us mean, or bad. It makes us human and it’s called unconscious bias.

Just as we look at other people and “rank” them as potential seat mates, we unconsciously critique and rank people in the office and on our teams. On the plane, my habit was mostly harmless and no one was hurt by that little judgmental voice in my head. (I sat next to two lovely people by the way.)

But what about if I’m leading a team at work? What if I’m a teammate on a diverse project with a complex problem to sort? Is that little voice still projecting positive and negative judgments that might be influencing my behaviors and attitudes towards my colleagues, direct reports, or leadership?

The Five Buckets

I learned a long time ago from my friends at ProGroup that we bucket people we work with into five mental positions: appreciation, acceptance, tolerance, avoidance or repulsion. Where I might place you on this “tolerance scale” is not about you. It’s about me: my values, my biases, and my ability or inability to practice inclusion toward your differences — your diversity.

This becomes so important to understand for anyone who leads or manages. If my mental attitude toward you and your differences is “appreciation” or “acceptance,” you will be receiving micro messages that I want you on the team and value your contributions and presence. Your overall engagement will no doubt be positively influenced by my leadership.

If the opposite is true, and you pick up on my attitude of “avoidance” or “repulsion,” you will either shut down, leave or even sabotage the organization’s success.

Are You Inclusive?

To be inclusive at work is to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table. It is to be aware of our biases and to work with them to prevent us from unconsciously or consciously discriminating against people due to their gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation – anything we perceive makes others different. It means to include many different viewpoints and to recognize all voices. We can’t do that if we don’t know what biases we have that might be sabotaging our good intentions of being a fair and inclusive leader.

I’ve always been curious about the “tolerance” bucket from the scale above. I see bumper stickers in my city that say TEACH TOLERANCE, and I think the sentiment is meant to be positive. But … I don’t want to tolerated, do you? I think about “putting up with” something or someone when I hear that word. If you want me to be fully engaged and an active team member, I expect you to accept or appreciate my differences.

The micro messages that convey our positive or negative biases towards others can have a macro impact on engagement and productivity. Since so many of these messages and behaviors might emanate from unconscious biases we have developed (also called “blind spots”), we share a great resource in our educational workshops to assist in uncovering those hidden biases.

Check out the Project Implicit hosted by Harvard University and take one of the many Implicit Association Tests developed by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. The tests are quick, on a variety of diversity dimensions, and are confidential and anonymous. Based on the neuroscience concepts called “fast and slow brain” functioning, I’ve not found a better way to illuminate awareness of what biases might be influencing that little voice to make those judgments on the “tolerance scale.”

Try it. While it might not help you on an airplane, you can learn something about yourself that could help you to manage your biases when working with your team, delivering feedback or selecting a candidate to interview.

Scott Horton is the owner and principal of Delta Concepts Consulting, Inc. and focuses on recognizing and mitigating the impact of unconscious bias within organizations’ talent management processes.