Leaders Can Overcome Unconscious Bias

By Dori Meinert Oct 9, 2015
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SAN ANTONIO—Some business leaders may see their HR team as a necessary evil. HR professionals may view ​business leaders as too focused on the bottom line.

Consciously or not, both parties make assumptions about the other based on their past experiences, which are the lenses through which they view the world. Those assumptions can create obstacles to achieving goals.

Understanding unconscious bias can help leaders make conscious decisions to be fair and inclusive, two diversity and inclusion experts told HR professionals attending the Society for Human Resource Management’s Emerging LEAD(HR) Conference on Oct. 8, 2015.

“Bias is not a function of your morality or character,” said Eric C. Peterson, a senior consultant at Cook Ross Inc., a Maryland-based consultancy.

“We have biases not because we’re bad and not because we’re stupid, but because we’re smart,” he said. “Bias happens whenever your past tries to help you predict the future. … It’s a mental shortcut to help us interact with the world.”

For example, biases can save our lives when they guide us away from dangerous situations, he said.

An unconscious bias is a mental association without awareness, intention or control.

“Your biases can often conflict with your conscious attitudes, behaviors and intentions,” Peterson said. However, by being aware of your biases, you can still make conscious decisions that aren’t biased, he said.

A Yale University researcher found bias in 2012 when she circulated two almost identical resumes to the science faculty. The sole difference was that one resume identified the job applicant as “John” while the other identified the applicant as “Jennifer.” The fictional male candidate received a higher average rating and a higher average starting salary from the faculty. Even the female professors favored the male candidate.

More Power, Less Empathy

Research also reveals how being in a position of power can influence individuals’ reactions to people and events. When someone sees an athlete get hurt, he can “feel” her pain. However, as a person’s power increases, his likelihood of empathizing decreases, studies have shown.

Leaders “start seeing people as things because they have less connection to those people,” said Kimberly Rattley, also a consultant with Cook Ross. They have less empathy for people of other races. They’re even less empathetic when they watch a person of another race inflicted with pain, studies show.

The ability to distinguish “us” vs. “them” begins in infancy. One study found that infants favored puppets that “chose” a food the child liked.

“It’s harder for me to connect with you when you’re different,” Rattley said. “We have to be very effortful about this. It can happen. But it takes more energy.”

Within organizations, power is defined as the ability to get things done or to influence the outcome. Power can be derived from your position in the organizational hierarchy, your close relationship to someone with power, your control over resources needed to achieve a certain outcome, your demonstrated expertise or your personality.

While the concept of power has a negative connotation, it’s merely a fact of organizational life. Not using your power when it could make things better can be as bad as abusing your power, Peterson said.

And just because increased power decreases empathy “doesn’t mean we don’t have control over that,” he said.

“The more power you take on, the more you have to make a proactive choice to really connect with the people you are working with,” Peterson said. “It’s not because you’re a bad person, but because of what happens in your brain.”

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor of HR Magazine.

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