The brain is constantly multi-tasking, streamlining our consciousness and directing our attention.
For the most part, this is a good thing because it allows us to focus on those tasks that require truly critical thought.
The challenge comes when the brain tries too hard to match previous experiences, clumsily categorising people or actions for the sake of efficiency.
A recent study described in the New York Times1 demonstrated this perfectly in showing that most people draw a male figure when asked to “draw a leader”.
The danger of these unconscious biases (or short cuts) lies in their impact in the workplace2. Perhaps you recognise some of these examples in your own working environment.
- Stifling creative processes
When the team follows the “group think”, majority opinion every time, and prematurely discredits solutions and innovations with real potential.
- Impacting performance reviews
If an individual is part of the “out group” (the only man amongst a group of females, for example, or a newbie amongst more experienced colleagues), data shows they will need to prove themselves more often and to a greater extent3 than the majority.
- Influencing team decisions
When unconscious bias limits our willingness to take risks on people we don’t know, so we assign the hardest problems to those we know best or are most similar to us (sidelining talented people in the process).
So how can we interrupt these biases? I believe there are some simple steps we can take.
The first is clear space; if there’s an individual in your meeting who isn’t contributing, they may simply be digesting the information and formulating their response. Or they may be lost in the group as the more vocal, familiar contributors fill the air.
So take the time to create a space for everyone to contribute ideas.
And seek to understand. If a colleague seems distant or has missed a deliverable, they may be affected by something personal, something work-related, or even something social that’s going on in the world around them.
So ask questions and understand other people’s perspectives. Try to interrupt the assumptions you may be making about someone’s willingness to contribute or be part of something.
The last step is to scrutinise judgements. Take a look at your own conclusions and those of the people around you. Are they based in fact, intent, or assumption? Try to limit the assumptions you are making.
These seemingly small day-to-day actions can have a lasting impact on individuals, collectively helping to shape an environment in which we can bring our ‘whole selves’ to work. And that’s better for us and better for our business.
2Hewlett, SA, Marshall, M, & Sherbin, L. (2013). Innovation, diversity and market growth. Center for Talent Innovation, 4--‐6. http://www.talentinnovation.org/publication.cfm?publication=1400
3Goldin, C. & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: the impact of "blind" auditions on female musicians. The American Economic Review, 90(4):715--‐741.
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