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Become conscious about unconscious biases
It is common for all of us to have strong opinions, affinity, or preconceived notions about certain things while making decisions. In most cases we don’t even realize but our brains are hardwired to make decisions based on personal experiences, knowledge and societal norms.
One fine afternoon, in 2008, while I was pursuing my MBA at Stanford University, a classmate of mine was going around the table introducing a few of us to his boyfriend. When he introduced me, I suddenly froze and looked around the table to find his girlfriend...Why? Because till that time, I (someone who had spent all his life in India) had never been introduced by a guy to his boyfriend ever and my mind just did not register that a male classmate of mine could have a boyfriend!
A good lesson learned at 25! Unconscious biases at work ( and in life), often lead to inaccurate decision-making processes, affect team performance, and are dangerous for the business in the long run.
Here are the three common types of unconscious biases that you may want to watch out for as a leader:
The halo effect
The halo effect refers to the people’s impression of one aspect of something to influence their impression of other aspects of it. A common example would be, while hiring, how we give preference to someone from a top university instead of looking at their overall traits.
I had developed this bias myself. Maybe because I was privileged to go to a top engineering school in India. I used to think if someone got into a top educational institution, the person would be smart. My mind also started forming a bias to the other side of the hypothesis - that if you go to a lower-ranked college, you are not smart enough!
And as you would have guessed, I have been proven wrong time and again. I have had many team members, who did not come from Ivy League or top-tier institutions but have been incredibly high performers & have taught me a lot.
While I appreciate all those who worked hard to get into top universities, during the hiring process, I am very conscious of looking at everyone through an overall lens considering their experiences, skill-sets, and all that they have achieved. Hopefully, my bias is kept at bay.
I was talking to my ex-colleague the other day. She has been giving interviews and she was being repeatedly asked if she plans to have a baby anytime soon. While some parts of the world may have laws that prohibit asking such questions, in other parts such questions are very common.
Something I read on Twitter a few weeks back -
“Man becomes a father. Manager- Let’s give him more responsibilities and a raise to manage his family.
Woman becomes a mother. Manager- let’s reduce her responsibilities so that she can manage her family.”
Such bias needs to be stopped!
Also, when we are talking about gender, it is not just about males and females. We are talking about all gender identities. Despite the progress made towards LGBTQ+ rights in many countries in recent years, most companies still don't provide a safe workplace for their LGBTQ+ employees.
Leaders have to lead here by example. Make gender-diverse & gender-balanced teams. Applaud everyone’s work. Further, recognize all gender identities. Diversify the involvement of all genders in the workplace and adopt gender-neutral hiring processes. Encourage employee support groups and networks to promote dialogue and create a safe space for all.
Removing cultural biases is crucial for a global business (or any for that matter!). In a company where people have biases towards certain ethnicities or cultures, collaboration is never as effective as it should be.
There was a time when I used to think that non-English speakers are less smart than English speakers. I am not sure how I got this bias - maybe my K12 education, where the medium of instruction was English, while many others around me went to schools where this was not the case.
Even at business school, when I failed to understand what my non-English speaking friends were trying to tell me, my mind would tell me that this was because they could not explain the context properly. Of course, that was not the case! It was me who was not paying enough attention to the conversation.
Slowly but surely, I started seeing how incredible all these “non-English” speakers had performed in their careers and I was taught a befitting lesson to equally respect people from across cultures and backgrounds.
So what to do?
Yes, we all have our own biases. And, that’s ok! The important part lies in realizing that we have them and then owning it to ourselves to start removing them.
One trick that has helped me is to have a really diverse set of friends and personal network. I have tried to mitigate my own biases by having meaningful conversations with these friends. Sharing these biases has also given them a safe space to recognize their own biases and conflicts.
Remember, creating a diverse workplace where biases are minimal can be challenging, but far from impossible!