Overcoming hidden bias to unlock talent's potential

Hidden biases involving factors such as race, gender, and age can make businesses lose out on great talent and opportunities. The good news is that these biases can be overcome.

At a recent dinner party the conversation turned to work, and I listened as another guest described candidates for a senior role in her organization. "Mary is more experienced, but she has nothing in common with the rest of the team," she said. "Finding the right fit is really important in my organization, so I hired Sue, who is more like the rest of the team." Many around the table nodded in understanding, but I thought the guest may have just let her unconscious bias rob her and her organization of the best candidate.

Unconscious bias is an automatic reaction. It's a subconscious preference for or against a person, thing or group. It's different from an explicit or conscious prejudice, but no less destructive. We all have these hidden biases — what's more, they've probably already affected our choices.

Biased, me? No way! That was my reaction when I first encountered the concept. Like many, I have strived to reject prejudiced behaviour in myself and others. But a growing field of research, led by Harvard University Prof. Mahzarin Banaji, shows that in spite of one's best intentions, most people harbour deep-seated resistance to the "different." That difference may involve factors such as race, gender, age or physical characteristics, or subtle qualities such as background, personality type or experiences.

Having these notions of normal or different, good or bad, doesn't mean we are bad people. Hidden biases exist in spite of our desire to be bias-free, and often in contradiction to the attitudes we believe we have. For example, a CEO of a Canadian corporation earned a good reputation for promoting women to senior management roles. Yet he was shocked to learn that he'd been ignoring ideas presented by these women executives, while accepting the very same ideas from their male colleagues. Once alerted to this unintentional behaviour, he was able to listen mindfully to all contributions.

There's positive bias, too, compelling us to favour personal connections and those with whom we share common experiences. Because I was an underdog who'd bucked the trend and expectations in my early career, I still over-identify with others in a similar position — meaning I sometimes help them unequally.

What's the impact? Though a growing number of companies have embraced diversity and its business benefits, hidden biases are likely shaping our workplace actions, affecting hiring, promotion, performance evaluations, budget decisions and openness to sources of ideas and innovative solutions.

The stakes are high. Talent languishes and leaves, innovation stalls, client service suffers and the organization may lose out on business opportunities.

The good news? It is possible to overcome hidden bias. We just need to outsmart ourselves.

It starts with identifying biases. Three good places to start include exploring the Implicit Association Test (implicit.harvard.edu), which helps companies and individuals identify their subconscious social attitudes; asking yourself whether you typically hire or promote the same type of person or personality; and considering your team. If everyone looks and behaves like you, you know that's not representative of our diverse society.

Once we acknowledge that our brains are hardwired this way and explore our blind spots, we can take steps to overcome them. Some tips: establish clearly defined criteria for evaluating interview candidates. Ask HR or other colleagues to observe if you are applying them fairly; sponsor people who are not like you — be purposeful about seeking out those who are different from yourself; set parameters around the way you help "special" connections to avoid helping one group unequally; and evaluate your actions regularly and seek feedback from trusted yet objective colleagues.

Overcoming hidden biases takes courage and vigilance. But research shows that leaders who confront their unconscious responses are better at building effective teams and delivering better results. Now is the time to improve our businesses and ourselves.