Bias is killing your productivity. Here’s why


Research tells us that people perceive diverse teams as less effective than they really are. Is this true? Or is bias to blame?

Bias is hardwired. No one with a brain can avoid it. This might sound harsh, but it’s important to accept this fact of life, especially as it concerns a KPI in business: achieving diversity and inclusion.

We know diversity and inclusion matters, but it’s a challenging paradox, says Dr David Rock, director of the Manhattan-based NeuroLeadership Institute. Rock will be revealing his research on unconscious bias at AHRI’s National Convention in August 2016 in Brisbane. 

The impact of inclusion and diversity on people and performance has been proven time and again. It improves retention, creates emotional connections between colleagues and has a positive effect on the bottom line. Especially important now is how diversity and inclusion plays out in a team setting.

Most work happens in team settings, and research shows this is a good thing. Teams are better at solving problems, reaching creative solutions, and finding and reducing errors, says Rock. To get these benefits, diverse perspectives and experiences are just as important as physical diversity. This is the hard part, though, and often the main reason why diversity initiatives fail is because perception is different from reality.

Research tells us that people perceive diverse teams as less effective than they really are. The reason for this, says Rock, is that to make diverse teams work people have to work harder and there’s a natural reluctance to do that.

“People feel more effective in homogenous teams, and people feel more confident in homogenous teams,” Rock says. To achieve diversity is arduous. “Having to work really hard to make something effective activates the brain’s threat response.”

That’s the first paradox. The second is that often, unconscious bias training makes people see bias all around them, but rarely in themselves. Because bias occurs unconsciously, it creates what Rock calls a ‘cognitive bottleneck’: Doing any kind of thinking, and analysing that thinking, can’t be done at the same time.

“You can’t be less biased in the moment,” he says. “Biases are unconscious before you understand them, and they are still unconscious after you understand them. Education doesn’t change that.”

There are several reasons people like unconscious bias training, Rock says. It validates employees’ experiences, provides interesting insights, shows that the company values inclusion and diversity, and raises awareness about the issue.

But bias is not an awareness or motivation problem. Therefore, businesses should focus on taking bias out of the process, rather than the people. “Biases, like diseases, have many causes. Yet we try to throw the same cure at everything,” he says.

Right now, there are about 100 recognised biases, give or take 50. It’s an unconscious bias landgrab among psychologists, but the majority can be broken down into five categories, also known as the SEEDS model:

  • Similarity: “People like me are better than others.” Common in people decisions.
  • Expedience: “If it feels right, it must be true.” Common when we hurry or experience high cognitive load.
  • Experience: “My perceptions are accurate.” Common in creative or resource decisions.
  • Distance: “Closer is better than distant.” Common in resource decisions.
  • Safety: “Bad is stronger than good.” Common in resource decisions.

Recognition of bias happens in hindsight, but there are ways to mitigate their expression by changing workplace processes. One way is to have ‘if … then’ plans to help make positive responses automatic in everyday activities. The second is to create decision guides that serve as step-by-step protocols for making key decisions. This will create ample opportunity for people to reflect on whether their decisions are the result of any bias. Finally, there are preventative measures that businesses can put in place to prevent biases being activated in the first place, such as blind recruitment.  

How does this all come back to building better teams through inclusion and diversity? “Diversity without inclusion is a train wreck,” he says. “And inclusion without diversity goes nowhere.” Racial, gender and age diversity are great, but just as important is cognitive diversity.

Seeing as how people aren’t great at recognising their own biases, by building diverse teams, chances are there will be someone who will call you out on them. Rock brings up a quote from Soichiro Honda, the founder of auto manufacturer Honda: “Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like. 

“It’s not about being the thought police,” Rock says. “It’s about making better decisions and getting better outcomes.”

Dr David Rock is a speaker at AHRI’s National Convention from 3 to 5 August 2016 in Brisbane. To check event details, see the sessions list and browse the exhibition presenters, click here.

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Bias is killing your productivity. Here’s why


Research tells us that people perceive diverse teams as less effective than they really are. Is this true? Or is bias to blame?

Bias is hardwired. No one with a brain can avoid it. This might sound harsh, but it’s important to accept this fact of life, especially as it concerns a KPI in business: achieving diversity and inclusion.

We know diversity and inclusion matters, but it’s a challenging paradox, says Dr David Rock, director of the Manhattan-based NeuroLeadership Institute. Rock will be revealing his research on unconscious bias at AHRI’s National Convention in August 2016 in Brisbane. 

The impact of inclusion and diversity on people and performance has been proven time and again. It improves retention, creates emotional connections between colleagues and has a positive effect on the bottom line. Especially important now is how diversity and inclusion plays out in a team setting.

Most work happens in team settings, and research shows this is a good thing. Teams are better at solving problems, reaching creative solutions, and finding and reducing errors, says Rock. To get these benefits, diverse perspectives and experiences are just as important as physical diversity. This is the hard part, though, and often the main reason why diversity initiatives fail is because perception is different from reality.

Research tells us that people perceive diverse teams as less effective than they really are. The reason for this, says Rock, is that to make diverse teams work people have to work harder and there’s a natural reluctance to do that.

“People feel more effective in homogenous teams, and people feel more confident in homogenous teams,” Rock says. To achieve diversity is arduous. “Having to work really hard to make something effective activates the brain’s threat response.”

That’s the first paradox. The second is that often, unconscious bias training makes people see bias all around them, but rarely in themselves. Because bias occurs unconsciously, it creates what Rock calls a ‘cognitive bottleneck’: Doing any kind of thinking, and analysing that thinking, can’t be done at the same time.

“You can’t be less biased in the moment,” he says. “Biases are unconscious before you understand them, and they are still unconscious after you understand them. Education doesn’t change that.”

There are several reasons people like unconscious bias training, Rock says. It validates employees’ experiences, provides interesting insights, shows that the company values inclusion and diversity, and raises awareness about the issue.

But bias is not an awareness or motivation problem. Therefore, businesses should focus on taking bias out of the process, rather than the people. “Biases, like diseases, have many causes. Yet we try to throw the same cure at everything,” he says.

Right now, there are about 100 recognised biases, give or take 50. It’s an unconscious bias landgrab among psychologists, but the majority can be broken down into five categories, also known as the SEEDS model:

  • Similarity: “People like me are better than others.” Common in people decisions.
  • Expedience: “If it feels right, it must be true.” Common when we hurry or experience high cognitive load.
  • Experience: “My perceptions are accurate.” Common in creative or resource decisions.
  • Distance: “Closer is better than distant.” Common in resource decisions.
  • Safety: “Bad is stronger than good.” Common in resource decisions.

Recognition of bias happens in hindsight, but there are ways to mitigate their expression by changing workplace processes. One way is to have ‘if … then’ plans to help make positive responses automatic in everyday activities. The second is to create decision guides that serve as step-by-step protocols for making key decisions. This will create ample opportunity for people to reflect on whether their decisions are the result of any bias. Finally, there are preventative measures that businesses can put in place to prevent biases being activated in the first place, such as blind recruitment.  

How does this all come back to building better teams through inclusion and diversity? “Diversity without inclusion is a train wreck,” he says. “And inclusion without diversity goes nowhere.” Racial, gender and age diversity are great, but just as important is cognitive diversity.

Seeing as how people aren’t great at recognising their own biases, by building diverse teams, chances are there will be someone who will call you out on them. Rock brings up a quote from Soichiro Honda, the founder of auto manufacturer Honda: “Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like. 

“It’s not about being the thought police,” Rock says. “It’s about making better decisions and getting better outcomes.”

Dr David Rock is a speaker at AHRI’s National Convention from 3 to 5 August 2016 in Brisbane. To check event details, see the sessions list and browse the exhibition presenters, click here.

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