Overcoming affinity and other unconscious biases in the workplace

By Paula Lonergan, organisational development consultant specialising in workplace wellbeing and resilience.

Our tendency to trust what is familiar and distrust what is different has led to many, many minor and major catastrophic decisions since the dawn of humanity. Possibly one of the most damaging and blatant forms of bias in the workplace, this is Affinity Bias. It happens when we seek out people who share the same beliefs or interests as us and we value them more favourably as a result.

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But isn’t it perfectly normal for people of similar interests, passions, values, backgrounds, mindset and age to find themselves co-working blissfully together? Are we not encouraged to seek out friendships and even close relationships based on a similar set of criteria?

Even in highly diverse environments, we can observe affinity groups emerge between the ‘arty crowd’, the ‘nerds’, the ‘sporty group’ etc;  Expat communities cling to each other in exotic locations, connected only by a common nationality, while members readily admit that they wouldn’t associate with one another ‘back home’  because of all the differences between them. Dating Apps guarantee to match you with your soul-mate as the algorithms slavishly line up commonalities in a digital pursuit of true love.  

Feelings of connection, affiliation and belonging are known contribute to our mental wellbeing . Otherwise known as the ‘Like Me Bias’ this affinity dilemma is behind most of our social interactions and connections and even a form of reassurance in new and challenging groups. 

When it comes to recruitment and progression paths in the workplace however, the affinity bias causes narrowness and is often behind the more damning statistics that have emerged out of recent studies and surveys.  

  • Less than 15% of American men are over 6’ tall, yet almost 60% of corporate CEOs are over 6’ tall
  • Of the all-male CEOs in Fortune 500, only 4 are black.
  • Approximately 25% of board seats in S&P 500 companies are occupied by women.
  • Unemployment rates are 50% higher in the disability community.

It is clear from these stats alone that belonging to certain groups is either advantageous or disadvantageous.

What is Bias?

So what is Bias and how does it work to create such privilege? Unconscious or implicit bias attracts an enormous amount of academic study and research. The Harvard  Implicit Association Test which aims to identify an individual’s specific biases, is now in the public domain and available online for all to use and self-discover. However, the test is the cause of much controversy and it has even been claimed to worsen biases in some case studies.

The term “implicit bias” refers to the role unconscious attitudes play in decision-making.  However, implicit bias stems from a natural survival instinct.  This ability at instinct level is what helps us to make fast and accurate decisions about our safety and whether we are in the company of friend or foe. Neuroscience tells us bias is in this way, a kind of by-product of evolution and is essential to information processing.

In order to filter and process the overwhelming amount of information we encounter in our daily lives through the senses, our brains have evolved to take mental shortcuts that allow us to make rapid decisions about safety, essential life functions, and people. The Cognitive Bias Codex is itself an overwhelming index of micro-biases formed through our emotional responses to experiences and memory.

Confirmation & Contrast Bias

Along with Affinity, Confirmation Bias – when we look for information that confirms a belief that we already have and filter out all evidence to the contrary, and Contrast Bias – when we evaluate someone as being better or worse based on how we feel about another person, have been identified as hugely influential in decision making at recruitment and progression interviews.  We can easily trace a direct path between these kinds of biases and the above stats and the outlook becomes rather gloomy for any diversity and inclusion policy to make any real impact.

In a recent Forbes article however, there appears to be some hope on the horizon as specific training interventions have been shown to reduce bias in decision-making and increase diversity and appreciation of difference in individuals.  Highly participatory and task-based training in which the trainees’ decision-making processes were measured before and after the intervention, produced promising results. Post training, participants were almost 30% more likely to override their initial ‘gut’ instinct response and engage in further, rational reflection leading to making a correct decision in a given task. 

Creating a workplace environment where everyone fully belongs

It is well documented at this stage that Diversity is good for business as it allows for creativity, synergy and innovation, to name but a few well worn milestones towards the holy grail of commercial success. But real diversity requires inclusion and appreciation of difference. It is not just about cultural differences either as diversity includes skills, capacity, intelligences, experience and much more. 

Creating a workplace environment where everyone fully belongs is the thinking behind the work of Em Cambell-Pretty, who asserts that it is the job of all leaders to make the workplace safe enough so that people can bring themselves to it fully and wholly. Patrick Lencioni has written and presented tirelessly on inclusive leadership and how when the fear of differences is eliminated, staff commitment and accountability soars, leading to greater personal investment in results.  

Belonging, in this way is therefore essential for business success. An up-to-now mythical win/win is possible in that more people from diverse and minority backgrounds can climb to the heights of their career ladders while companies and businesses stand to fly high in profit and success.

Competency based interviewing and blind CV appraisal have proven themselves to be somewhat effective in reducing biased decision-making. Bias Reduction Training however, would appear to offer us further hope in that if we learn how to make very conscious efforts to use rational and reflective thinking, as oppose unconscious ‘gut’ decisions. This kind of intervention can help make a meaningful move towards safe, inclusive and diverse workplaces.

Training which takes us from the unconscious to the conscious can really make a difference in the very creation and appreciation of difference.  Certain feathers will be ruffled perhaps but as William Blake so succinctly puts it, “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings”.    

About the author

Paula Lonergan is an organisational development consultant specialising in workplace wellbeing and resilience with an enthusiasm for creating high performance cultures through authentic team work.

As a translator and interpreter with French, Paula works for the Department of Justice, The Refugee Council and many large, international companies in both Ireland and France. She is also a qualified mediator registered with the Mediation Institute of Ireland.

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