Unconscious Bias and Your Brain

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I have been a huge fan of Kristen Pressner since I saw her TEDx talk “Are You Biased? I Am,” and I borrow her #FlipItToTestIt catchphrase frequently. Pressner was one of the first HR leaders to openly acknowledge that everyone, even HR people, have unconscious bias that affects their objective decision-making.

Take gender bias. As Pressner has demonstrated, women can be as gender-biased as men can. She was horrified to learn that her own gender bias centred on gender-coded expectations about women’s behavior. She fell into the trap of seeing women as homemakers and men as revenue-generators — even though she herself is the primary earner in her family of six and her husband is a stay-at-home dad.

At her keynote presentation at UNLEASH London, she shared her take on how to best address unconscious bias in the workplace.

Taking the Primal ShortCuts

Our brains process millions of pieces of information a day, and to make life easier we filter it all using a series of shortcuts and patterns. This is rooted in our primal history, because it allows us to focus on the most important pieces of information — those that protect us and make us feel safe. For digital natives, this might be the equivalent of a hashtag: #SameRace, #SameSex #SameLanguage #SameSchool. Without these shortcuts, our brains would suffer from information overload and eventual processing paralysis.

So we all acquire these biases from the minute we are born, unconsciously absorbing them from our parents, siblings, neighborhoods and communities, schools, movies and books. The downside is that, as these shortcuts and patterns play out in the background of our brains, the affect every decision or a judgment we make. The workplace is no exception.

Understanding Unconscious Bias

Pressner’s approach has been pivotal in changing the discussion around bias in the workplace. Despite the strong business case for gender balance, diversity and inclusion and the concept of Big Data to support HR decision-making, unconscious bias accounts for a lack of progress in many areas. “It’s unfortunate but true that unconscious bias holds back potential, especially in HR,” she says. “Now more than ever, enterprise companies need HR’s leadership to be the disruptors that drive strategic innovation from within to unleash their people’s potential. The problem is, our own unconscious bias is likely holding back our people, our organizations and perhaps most surprisingly, ourselves.”

Stepping Foward as HR Leaders

Keeping pace with a world changing at an unprecedented rate means that HR needs to adapt to tackle future risks and examine the decisions we are making that are potentially affected by bias, specifically around:

  • Talent: Bias interferes with attracting, retaining and unleashing the potential of talented people.
  • Organizational agility: Poor decisions make us less effective.

Pressner calls on everyone in HR to step up to catch and manage unconscious bias at an individual level, and ultimately at an organizational level. She also advocates for HR leaders to move from a perceived support role in companies to establishing their place as “business leaders who specialize in people and culture.”

As she said in her powerful closing: “I got into HR for a reason, probably you did too. In these changing times, stop looking for someone else to lead. We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”

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