Unconscious Bias and Leadership Effectiveness: What You Don't Know Can Hurt

The latest U.S. Census report shows a growing trend in populations representing diverse cultures, which can potentially lead to a more blended workforce. Organizations are investing in resources and initiatives supporting welcoming and inclusive environments.

Competition is tough and all of the successful "big players" across industries are looking for the brightest and best talent. Talent acquisition strategies and internal programs are created to retain the diverse population: from mentoring to coaching and employee resource groups. These efforts are commendable and play a critical role in attraction and retention. However, there are new concerns rising across all industries that have come to light, which organizations now understand play a critical role in the success of employees. One such area of concern is Unconscious Bias, also known as Implicit Bias.

Unconscious Bias, as defined by the Kirwan Institue's 2013 State of Science Implicit Bias Review is the "attitudes and serotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions on an unconscious matter."

While each of us bring our hidden biases with us daily (consciously or unconsciously), a January 9th WSJ article written by Joann Slublin (Bringing Hidden Biases into the Light) warns that "left unchecked at the job, hidden biases can impact decisions." The good news is that larger businesses are ahead of the game and have proactively added mandatory training programs to help leaders understand how to manage these hidden biases. Slublin highlights that some companies which have invested in training for Unconscious Bias include:

Managers that bring bias to the workplace run the risk of making unconscious decisions about performance and hiring based on their own upbringing, experiences or values. An example might be a manager who is an introvert and soft spoken may view those who speak louder and more articulate to be a "wrong fit" for the team, even with experience and skills that meet or exceed the job requirements.

Another example of possible unintentional unconscious bias may cause a senior executive who is seeking to fill a VP level position, to make decisions about the right candidate based on his or her experiences with past hires. With a team of existing high performing male leaders who exceed goals and manage tough travel schedules, having a unique experience with a female leader who stepped out of the role voluntarily for personal reasons, could lead to the decision or perception that "this is not the role for a female." Every situation has many factors and the examples shown here are fictitious and intended to demonstrate how biases are formed.

A lack of systems and processes that guard against biased performance management models can increase risk of turnover, potential legal ramifications, disengaged workforce and branding.

Successful organizations recognize the need for helping leadership teams understand and manage Unconscious Bias. These same organizations will likely experience a more engaged and inclusive workforce.

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