Workplace Culture

Take Bias Out of Processes, Not People, NeuroLeadership Institute’s David Rock Says

By James Tehrani

Oct. 2, 2015

Bias is a big issue for companies — and people in general. It affects everything from hiring to purchasing decisions and everything in between. The fact is, whether we like it or not, we’re all biased. We can’t help it. It’s prewired in our brains and makes us who we are.

So what can companies do about it? If you think you can take bias out of people, you’re wrong, says David Rock, the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global research organization focusing on cognitive research. Instead, he says, to limit bias, organizations need to addresses their decision-making processes. In other words, don’t even give the brain an opportunity to make an unconscious biased decision.

I had the opportunity to discuss bias with Rock (at right in the screen grab below) following his presentation at  CEB’s ReimagineHR: Building the HR Function of the Future conference in Chicago on Oct. 1. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation. I might be am biased, but I thought it was a fascinating conversation.

Whatever Works: So I’m biased, you’re biased, we’re all biased, so are we fighting a losing battle to try and get rid of bias?

David Rock: We’re all incredibly biased, and incredibly biased all the time. That’s actually a good thing in some ways. You need bias to get through your shopping routine. If you have to make a fresh decision about every single purchase, you’d never get home. So generally bias is not a problem. The trouble is for key decisions like who you should hire or which business to buy or which vendor to use, these kinds of things, going off unconscious biases can have some quite large consequences. So mitigating bias all the time is impossible and a bad idea. What we need to do though is significantly reduce the bias so that we make just basically better decisions that are not just automatic. In key decisions like the hiring, investment, etc.

WW: So where does bias come from? It’s sounds like some sort of defense mechanism?

Rock: It’s a complex story, but essentially we don’t have a lot of cognitive resources for mapping the world moment to moment in the brain, so we have to use heuristics and rules and pre-learned principles in order to make sense of the world. A baby comes out and everything’s just noise, so we don’t have a lot of cognitive resources for making fresh decisions and seeing things new. We’re built to use existing patterns basically, and that plays out in nudging us one way that we’ve always gone as an example of one of the biases.

To read my interview with CEB's HR practice leader, Brian Kropp, please click here.

WW: Talk about what companies can actually do if they’re concerned about bias. And should they be very concerned about bias?

Rock: The thing is bias actually is a big issue. It’s having organizations that are not as diverse as they could be, not as inclusive as they could be, and that’s a significant issue in itself. Additionally to that, poor investment decisions, poor purchasing decisions. Often these have very serious consequences in many organizations. So it is a real problem. The thing is it’s one of these very quirky problems where going at it the way that might seem obvious doesn’t really work. Most problems with people, workforce problems, you can sort of educate people a bit and create some change. Bias is one of those problems where it’s not really an awareness or motivation problem; it’s actually a perception problem. More education doesn’t really do much. You’ve basically got to reduce the chance of bias rather than rely on people to try to be less biased.

WW: How do you do that?

Rock: We talk about take the bias out of the process rather than the person. The very best way you can take bias out is to look at a process, work out the kind of bias that could happen and literally take out the possibility of it happening. A common example that’s sort of well-known is the orchestra that does blind auditions. Play this song behind a screen. We don’t know their age, their gender, anything. And you choose the best person, the best sound. And it ends up you hire completely differently when you do that. It’s removing the chance of bias, taking that human element out and just going with what really makes someone perform well.

WW: So the TV show ‘The Voice’ is doing something right?

Rock: <Laughs> That’s right. They are actually reducing bias. You’re not going to trick them with your smile or something else.

WW: You talk about the different types of bias out there, and there’s one you call ‘distance bias.’ There’s been a trend in the workforce with allowing people to work remotely. By doing that, are they introducing a bias that they’re not aware of?

Rock: Yea. Absolutely. So distance bias is one of the five big categories of bias that are driving our behavior all the time. We organized all the different biases — there’s more like 100 — into five categories based on how the brain creates these biases. And distance is one. Essentially it’s your brain saying, ‘Things that are closer to you are more valuable.’ Pay more attention to something closer to you physically or in time. And we don’t know that’s happening. And what can happen if an employee is working distantly is that you don’t pay as much attention literally to their ideas, to their work, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind principle ends up sort of actually being a little bit true compared to the person that might be in the office. It’s an unconscious bias that can work against the person that’s remote.

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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