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Is Unconscious Bias Holding Back Business Growth?


One of my colleagues recently caused a rather difficult situation when he unwittingly fell victim to his unconscious bias.

My colleague and I were talking to a client regarding the need for intercultural leadership training for their CEO based in the Middle East.

This CEO is responsible for a large global company with a multi-billion turn-over. 

My colleague asked a number of questions regarding the role of this individual – referring each time to ‘he’. 

Our client eventually put him right and told him that the ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’.  Enough said.  

What does ‘unconscious bias’ actually mean?

Cognitive scientists have dedicated decades to studying this phenomenon so we have a fairly robust understanding. 

Essentially our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours are determined by our unconscious functions.  The things we see, hear and learn as children, are automatically committed to our unconscious mind. 

Although you may not agree with (for example) racist ideology, you may surprise yourself with an unwanted racist thought / reaction. These thoughts are borne of things we’ve heard and been subject to throughout our lives.

Like sponges, we tend to absorb information such as cultural stereotypes and gender negative views.  

It is important to note however, that they do not make us bigots and neither do they dictate us as individuals as we can confront our bias through training or mindful awareness and eventually achieve a state of ‘Conscious Competence’.

Whilst many international companies strive to create teams of the best people for the job - regardless of their ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation, staff who act in accordance with an unchecked bias limit the aims of the company. 

These individuals are particularly detrimental within recruitment or management positions as they are more likely to:

•    Recruit people ‘like them’
•    Promote people ‘like them’
•    Give preference and performance awards to people ‘like them’

The impacts on the not ‘like them’ staff are that they are:

•    More like to leave
•    Less likely to feel valued and integrated within the workplace
•    Less likely to feel motivated to do the best they can

Clearly these impacts have significant consequences for businesses wanting to build diverse and multicultural teams as the business is more likely to continue to recruit in its like and therefore fail to recruit the best people for the job or to retain the best talent.

A second fall out is that the status quo is also more likely to go unchecked. Let’s go back to the he/she example of the Middle Eastern CEO.  This reflects an expectation that the CEO should be male – a sentiment which is often unchallenged in most organisations as this is the expected norm.

A wealth of studies demonstrate the significance of unconscious bias in the business setting – particularly at the recruitment phase.

These studies typically use identical CVs with interchangeable names – particularly names relating to under-represented cultural groups. 

Mohamed or Adam?

In this vein, the BBC recently aired a programme which showed the response to identical CVs submitted by individuals named ‘Mohamed’ and ‘Adam’. 


bias BBC mohamed.adam

Adam was offered three times as many interviews as Mohamed.  Studies in the US have replicated these findings. 

Although in some cases, this output will be driven by discriminatory behaviours, it is considered more likely that that individuals have overlooked the CV as they have been unable to relate to the applicant at the first hurdle – i.e. the ethnicity of the applicant’s name.

Clearly, the fall out of actions taken against a backdrop of unconscious bias place considerable limitations on business growth. 

As international companies confront this issue and try to truly harness the opportunities of a diverse and intercultural workforce, those who ignore or fail to perceive the issue will undoubtedly lose their ability to compete in the long term.

Being conscious of our limitations and taking steps to reach a state of conscious mindfulness is incumbent upon all of those who work in organisations which strive to leverage the talents of their multicultural and diverse organisation.

Did you see the video of Prof. Robert Kelly being interviewed via Skype for the BBC? What ensued illustrated perfectly how unconscious bias and culture can combine, resulting in bad decisions!

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

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