Breaking bias

It was one of those events that the memory of, lasts forever.

 

It was a few years
ago now, when I found myself in front of a panel, being interviewed for a job that I really wanted.

 

The job was perfect, it was part-time (only a couple of half days each week) and in
a location that was easy to get to. I knew exactly what the work would entail
and that I would enjoy doing it. My training had covered all that would be
needed and I had plenty of experience. I knew the person I would be potentially
replacing as well as one of the people on the interviewing board who has recommended I apply. I thought I had
it in the bag.

 

The interview seemed to go really well. My
credentials and references were reviewed. The questions I was asked led to some
interesting discussion and it was even mentioned by the panel that I appeared
to tick all the boxes they were looking for, except…

 

I was pregnant. Not 9 months full blown, but
quite obviously with child and a factor that I had taken into consideration and
had discussed with the panel prior to applying for the position. I had already got plans in place for how I
was going to manage being a mother with a young baby and working part-time. It
was discussed at length during the interview and I left confident they knew I
could do the job well.

 

I didn’t get the job.

 

It went to a man, and one who wasn’t pregnant. Not that it was his fault he got picked and not me – it was the reason
given that irked. “Yes, you would have been ideal, but we felt that having
a baby would cause you difficulties”.

 

Are you biased?

 

Even just a teensy bit perhaps?

 

Admitting to bias is not necessarily something
you may always feel comfortable about, yet the reality is we are all biased and
probably to a far greater extent than we either know or care to admit to.

 

I was fortunate enough to attend the
Neuroleadership Summit in Sydney a couple of weeks ago where bias in relation
to the workplace was one of the topics discussed.

 

Over 150 different types of bias have been
described so far – implying there are still quite a few to be mapped out. These
include some of the better known biases such as consensus bias, affirmation
bias, gender bias, confirmation bias, affinity bias, pregnancy bias – you get the drift.

 

But why does bias matter and what is its
relevance to enhancing your performance in the workplace?

 

According to Prof Matt Lieberman (my most favourite
social cognitive neuroscientist in the world J) bias is
simply a mental shortcut in our unconsciousness that allows us to perceive the
world in a certain way and contributes to the decisions we make.

 

But the trouble is because we don’t realise
the extent of our biases, we often don’t know the difference between being
right about our beliefs, and believing we are right.

K Schulze has said that of bias that, “it is like
we are blind without realising our blindness”

The implication is that you may have to
assume that in all your judgments there will be at least one element of
bias or you may simply be wrong.

 

But can you think of some of the ways where
unintentional bias at work can result in disturbing outcomes?

 

A recent U.S. study has revealed how people
presenting to emergency rooms are less likely to receive opioid medication if
they come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds compared to their wealthier
counterparts, even in cases where the person has a broken bone.

This is one time where “trusting your
gut” may not be such a great idea because yes, your instinctive reactions
are often highly biased!

 

So how can you overcome bias? Some ideas on
how to mitigate bias were discussed at the Summit including:

 

1.Raising awareness of the possibility of bias and differentiating between
what is consciously and intentionally known and unconsciously and
unintentionally known is a good start.

 

2. Acceptance
that bias exists in organisations.

 

3. Identify
your biases.

 

4. Implement
a means to identify possible issues of bias.

 

5. Rectify
those biases identified (sometimes easier said than done!).

 

In the same way as a judge on a judging panel
has to be seen to be fair and objective with every candidate, it’s all about
recognising the need for a standard set of objectives and outcomes that get
applied equally to all, ensuring all communications are kept open and checking
in on whether you believe the social values of relatedness and fairness are
being maintained.

 

The one and only strategy that has been shown in the scientific literature to effectively
move us all towards a less biased brain interestingly enough, was undertaking ten
weeks of mindfulness meditation.

 

Once again, enhancing mindfulness for greater
workplace performance and decision making has been shown to be of benefit, presumably
through elevating your level of awareness, and increasing what you notice around
you, right here, right now without judgment.

 

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What examples have you witnessed of bias in
the workplace and what measures have you seen taken (if any) to effectively
combat these?

 

What are your thoughts.

 

Ref:

Fortuna et al (2013) The
Impact of Neighbourhood Socioeconomic Status and Race on the Prescribing of
Opioids in Emergency Departments Throughout the United States Journal of General
Internal Medicine
ISSN: 0884-8734 (Print) 1525-1497 (Online)

 

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