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INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION UNCONSCIOUS BIAS: BARRIER TO DIVERSITY: ADVANCED


Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 4/2018 vom 27.06.2018

Jeder von uns hat unbewusste Präferenzen, die unsere Entscheidungen maßgeblich beeinflussen. Das birgt die Gefahr von Fehleinschätzungen in sich, sofern man nicht erkennt, wie unbewusste Voreingenommenheit funktioniert. Von ROBERT GIBSON


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Unconscious bias: what you think you see may not be true


We all have biases — individual preferences or views that have been formed by our own experiences and by the influence of others. Increasingly, the concept of “unconscious bias” — individual biases that we do not realize we have — is becoming a business concern.

Google is just one of the many companies worldwide ...

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Google is just one of the many companies worldwide addressing unconscious bias. Over half of the company has now taken part in their in-house “Unconscious Bias @Work” workshop. The Royal Society, a leading UK academy dedicated to promoting excellence in science, claims to “actively address unconscious bias when making decisions”. Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at the global strategy and consulting firm Accenture, says the company’s videoInclusion Starts with I is part of Accenture’s campaign to become “the most inclusive and diverse company on the planet”.

So why is there all this fuss about unconscious bias? It all comes down to increased awareness of the need for diversity. There is a clear business case for diversity: diverse teams have the potential to be more innovative and are more likely to foster customer proximity than monocultural ones. Demographic trends have created a “war for talent”, in which there is no place for any barriers to hiring the best people, regardless of their background. Unconscious bias is a barrier to the diversity that businesses need to be successful on the global market.

Fascinating research — using the latest technology to find out how the brain works — forms the basis of our understanding of unconscious bias. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two ways of thinking, which he calls “fast” and “slow” (see “For more information”, p. 35). The brain is only about two per cent of our body mass, but it consumes about 20 per cent of our energy; it has evolved to make mental shortcuts to save energy.

We cannot cope with all the information that we are bombarded with. Every second, we are exposed to 11 million bits of information but can only process about 40. We are continually filtering information.

Sometimes, we need to make quick decisions to survive: if we are approached by a tiger, we have to react immediately and not first check whether it is friendly or not. While this might help us to survive as human beings in the jungle, the question is whether this “fast” thinking leads to good decision-making in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world of today.

To experience how your brain can mislead you, look at the two horizontal lines below. Which one is longer?

To most people, the second one appears longer, but, in fact, both lines are of the same length. The reason that they seem to be of different lengths is because of the different diagonal lines at the tips of the vertical lines. For more such optical illusions, go towww.scientificpsychic.com/graphics .

Dangerous stereotypes

Our mental filter is based on our previous experience. If we have been exposed only to negative or, for that matter, positive images of a particular group of people, we will apply that knowledge in our decision-making. Sometimes, these views of others become fixed as stereotypes. Intercultural stereotypes can be dangerous; the danger is that they lead us to make poor decisions. The effects of unconscious bias can be particularly serious in the recruiting process. Even before we invite candidates to an interview, we can be influenced by photos or names.


Unconscious bias is becoming a global business concern


In 2017, the BBC sent CVs from two candidates who had identical skills and experience in response to 100 job advertisements in London. One candidate was called Adam Henton and the other Mohamed Allam. Adam was offered three times more interviews than Mohamed. Researchers were shocked to find this discrimination against Muslims in such a multicultural city.

Apart from bias against particular religious groups, other biases need to be considered, including gender, age, race, parental status, educational background, sexual orientation and physical (dis)ability. Think about biases in your business. Are men hired rather than women for top management positions?

Do you hire employees over 50? Are you open to people with a different racial background from yourself? Are you reluctant to promote single parents or women with small children? Do you have a preference for graduates from particular universities? How accepted are members of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community? Would you have hired Stephen Hawking?

Types of bias

Biases come in many different forms.
Similarity bias happens when we select people who are similar to us, as opposed to people who appear different: “She went to the same university as I did; she must be good.” “He looks like me. I’m sure he’ll fit in with the team. The chemistry is right.”
Affective heuristic bias is based on first impressions. We decide very quickly that this is the right candidate based on an emotional reaction rather than looking at the evidence: “I know my people. I just follow my gut feeling — that’s why I’m so successful.”
Confirmation bias selectively searches for information that confirms our previously existing beliefs: “Everybody knows that Germans are hard-working. I’m sure that Hans Schmidt, who has applied for our job, will be hard-working.”
• Thehalo effect is a bias in which our overall impression of a person affects our evaluations of that person’s specific traits: “She’s so well dressed. I’m sure she will be efficient.” “He was such a great engineer. I’m sure he will succeed as a manager.”
Groupthink is another form of bias. We are influenced by the opinions of others in the group: “The others think that she is the right candidate — they must be right.”
Anchoring bias is based on the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions. We hear that “he has an MBA from Harvard but can be quite difficult” and focus on the MBA from Harvard rather than his potentially difficult personality.

It’s only human

How can we address unconscious bias? The first important thing to remember is that unconscious bias is part of being human. We all have our own biases. We can, to some extent, become aware of them but we cannot “heal” unconscious bias. We need to face up to it and, in the context of decision-making, develop processes that reduce its potentially negative effects. This needs to be done at individual, team and organizational levels.


We can become aware of it, but we cannot “heal” unconscious bias


To try to change your attitude to groups that you are biased about, find out more about them. One simple way of doing this is to go for a coffee or lunch with someone you instinctively have negative feelings about.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

BOOKS
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People , Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald (Delacorte Press)
Inclusion Nudges Guidebook: Practical Techniques for Changing Behaviour, Culture & Systems to Mitigate Unconscious Bias and Create Inclusive Organisations , Tinna C. Nielsen, Lisa Kepinski (CreateSpace)
Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious , Timothy D. Wilson (Harvard University Press)
Thinking, Fast and Slow , Daniel Kahneman (Penguin)

WEBSITES
· Accenture videoInclusion Starts with I :www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g88Ju6nkcg
· Google materials on unconscious bias and “unbiasing”:https://rework.withgoogle.com/subjects/unbiasing
· Implicit-association test (IAT):https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit
· Royal Society video on unconscious bias:https://royalsociety.org/topicspolicy/publications/2015/unconsciousbias

One way of finding out about your personal biases is to take the implicit-association test (IAT). Hundreds of thousands of people have logged on to a website run by Harvard University and taken the implicit-association test. It was produced by Project Implicit, “a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition — thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the internet.”

The test assesses conscious and unconscious preferences relating to more than 90 different topics ranging from pets to political issues, ethnic groups to sports teams, and entertainers to styles of music. An increasing number of critics question what exactly IAT measures and how accurate the results are, but it remains one of the most widely used tools in the field. Try it and decide for yourself. The test is available free online (see “For more information” above).

As for bias at the team level, you can deal with it by challenging bias in team meetings. Speak up when someone says something biased. One way of doing this is to have a hotel reception bell on the table and encourage colleagues to ring it and stop the meeting if they hear biased comments. Have an “unconscious bias moment” at the beginning of important decision-making meetings to remind the team of key aspects of unconscious bias.

At the organizational level, have processes in place to make sure that the recruiting and development of employees is as fair as possible. This can include removing photos, names and gender from CVs and ensuring that interview panels are as diverse as possible.

Creating an inclusive environment

Remind employees regularly of diversity policies or business conduct guidelines and make sure breaches of the regulations are addressed. Psychologist Lisa Kepinski and anthropologist Tinna Nielsen have developed practical techniques, or “nudges”, to help create an inclusive environment in the workplace (see “For more information” above). The scientific basis of work on how the brain functions appeals to many people who have previously shown little interest in diversity issues. The starting point is to accept that your brain can mislead you and that your experience can lead you to make wrong decisions. The next stage is to recognize the advantages of creating an environment in which a diverse workforce can flourish.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada says: “Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice.” Addressing unconscious bias is an important step in creating an inclusive organization that will enable your business to flourish, even in a VUCA world.

ROBERT GIBSON has over 25 years of experience of intercultural competence development in education and business. He has written more than 70 intercultural articles forBusiness Spotlight .


Illustration: SlyBrowney/iStock.com

Illustration: SlyBrowney/iStock.com