You have heard the expression, “Never judge a book by its cover,” but is it actually possible to follow that command?
It is safe to say everyone engages in both conscious, controlled thinking and in automatic, involuntary thinking. Automated cognitive processes allow us to quickly form impressions and make judgments with limited information. Automated thought processes, which evolve over a lifetime, allow us to organize what we learn and experience into mental structures called “schemas,” which help us make sense of our complex social world. Schemas take little cognitive energy to influence expectations, driving the way we perceive individuals, groups and the world. Our brains prefer this autopilot mode wherever possible, encouraging us to infer connections even when there are significant gaps in our information. Ultimately, humans’ default mode is to judge books by their covers—and we don’t even know we’re doing it.
Recognizing & Combating Bias
Automatic thinking is often unavoidable, and it is useful to recognize that this function is not inherently harmful or wrong. Most of us can acknowledge that there are times when we must trust our guts or fill in the gaps to make quick decisions under pressure.
However, activation of our schemas can unintentionally lead to negative social consequences; that is, a schema can be created that has been conceptualized by or implies a form of bias and it may lead to negative behavior. The recognition of adverse social effects at both an individual and an organizational level is essential in addressing and combating implicit biases within ourselves and in the workplace. It takes diligence and motivation to become aware of subconscious bias, as it comes in many forms. Below are some strategic steps you and your organization can take to fight these biases.
Bias in Hiring
First, implicit bias can be challenging to recognize, as it may not always align with the explicit and declared beliefs of an organization. Consider a male CEO who has sole approval on leadership hires. He openly advocates gender equity in the workplace, but the company has no women in leadership positions. Bias does not require intent. It is possible the CEO has no intention of disallowing female leadership roles, but instead has been primed to subconsciously feel that men have more desirable leadership qualities than women. This priming could lead the CEO to unknowingly be drawn to the resumés of men and those containing more masculine verbiage, therefore blocking qualified female applicants from advancing.
A practical move to combat adverse effects arising from situations like this might be to change hiring practices to include more people in the decision-making process. Are there any stages within your recruitment or hiring procedures where there are a limited number of decision-makers? Think about how the individuals holding these roles are making their decisions.
Another tip would be to implement uniform guidelines that encourage merit-based decision-making. A predetermined list of interview questions could be helpful as well. And consider implementing a grading model that gives points for specific answers and takes away points for unsatisfactory answers or responses that fail to address comments or ideas that the candidate should have caught. The process can thus be less subjective than declaring “I just liked him better” or “she isn’t a good fit.”
Bias in Training
Sometimes people unconsciously seek information that not only aligns with their declared beliefs but reinforces them. In this case, you may engage in actions that elicit expectancy-confirming behaviors from those around you, especially subordinates. This behavior creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and can have grave effects on a workforce and morale. No matter your position, expectations influence what you perceive, which can be dangerous when driven by a biased schema.
For example, in one study, participants assigned as job trainers for a virtual computer training program were shown photographs that had been manipulated to depict trainees as either obese or average weight. Trainers initially expected poor performance from the “obese” trainees, referencing stigmas such as laziness and low work ethic. The trainers did not know that there was no discernable difference in performance between the two groups of trainees. Observations revealed that the trainers who initially held low expectations—stemming from a negative bias about obesity—treated this group more negatively during the training session, thereby affecting the quality of the interaction. Despite no difference in performance, those participants portrayed as obese ended with more negative evaluations after the training than the other group.
Considering the ongoing pandemic, you’ve likely made some decisions based on your limited virtual contact with others. With a subjective evaluation process, like the virtual training program described above, these decisions could have adverse effects. Strategic implementation of impartial policies and procedures can reduce bias and positively influence how your employees treat their colleagues, patients and prospects.
Company culture and values also affect how employees and leadership address bias in the workplace and help prevent it. It is essential to keep the lines of communication open with employees. Those who have experienced or have witnessed biased or discriminatory behavior should have a safe way to come forward and solutions should be made available. Encourage your staff to engage in discussions and solutions. Employees will appreciate that their experiences and concerns are supported and that the organization is open to their insights. Executive leaders should be trained to tactfully address the concerns of those who may have encountered bias.
Being motivated to reinforce conscious strategies requires everyone to stay diligent in policing their own implicit biases. Reflect on how many times you have assumed something about someone’s personality based on their physical characteristics. Everyone does it—but once we become aware of a thought that’s probably derived from a stereotype, it is important to turn the spotlight on ourselves and be willing to hit the pause button when forming first impressions. We must be motivated to analyze our snap judgments, reflect on our perceptions and hopefully prevent a potentially negative consequence.
Begin with identifying how you “know” what you know. If you cannot come up with a clear answer, your judgments likely came from implicit bias. Searching for information that contradicts your initial perceptions will also help you to gain a more accurate understanding of the situation. Once you’re aware of questionable or harmful assumptions, actively work to identify any positive traits, even if they contradict what initially came to mind.
With the brain hardwired to be on autopilot, we must have a conscious desire to engage in analytical thinking. We all owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to look beyond the cover of the book.