By Dan Robertson, ENEI

Over the last few decades new research has shed light into the workings of the human brain and the concept of unconscious bias.  This new field of science has profound consequences for the way business leaders think about how they attract, retain and develop diverse talent pools. According to the behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman, there are distinctive errors or cognitive biases in the decisions people make. Understanding these cognitive biases helps us to shed some light on the nature of human decision-making. These biases result in what Professor Banaji from Harvard University calls ‘mindbugs’.

Psychologists have identified many types of mindbugs or biases but a key bias that impacts decision-making in a business context is affinity (like me) bias. This bias leads us to favour people who are like us. There is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that hiring managers are more likely to hire social groups who are like them over minority groups. Research by the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion in 2012 found high levels of unconscious affinity bias in three additional key areas:

1. Work allocation: Managers are much more likely to allocate stretching projects to people like them

2. Feedback: Managers are more likely to provide critical feedback to people like them and less likely to do so to those in their out-groups

3. Informal mentoring and sponsorship: Managers are more likely to offer informal mentoring and sponsorship to employee who they have some kind of affinity with – this could range from sharing a similar social background, attending the same university or simply sharing at interest in a particular sport.

Controlling unconscious bias through Inclusive Leadership.

Inclusive Leadership is a style of leadership that differs from traditional command and control styles of leadership. The inclusive leader is someone who questions traditional behaviour patterns and decision-making structures and sees diverse talent as a source of innovation and organizational creativity. Part of being an inclusive leader is also knowing what is meant by inclusiveness. As stated in an article from the Berlitz Corp, inclusiveness is the quality of the organizational environment that maximizes and leverages the diverse talents, backgrounds and perspectives of all employees.

Catalyst, the global not-for-profit organisation has identified four key qualities of an inclusive leader:

  1. Empowerment: Inclusive leaders enable diverse talent and teams to grow by encouraging them to solve problems. Moving away from the leader as hero figure.
  2. Courage: Inclusive leaders stand up for what they believe is right. Thus they challenge existing norms and call out both conscious and unconscious biases when they see or experience them.
  3. Humility: An inclusive leader is someone who creates an organisational environment where it’s OK for them and others to admit their mistakes. They are curious about difference and actively seek out different points of view to increase innovation and leverage diverse skills to meet wider business goals.
  4. Accountability: A key aspect of inclusive leadership is holding oneself and others to account. This involves questioning hiring managers and reviewing differences in performance management scores between different groups and questioning why.

Additional day to day activities that promote inclusive leadership include scheduling meeting at times to ensure maximum participation, when on a conference call or in meeting, ensure you invite everyone to contribute to the discussion and being what I call a nosey manager: Find out from someone you know less well just one new thing about them – it helps to builds affinity!  

Dan Robertson Profile Picture

Dan Robertson is Diversity and Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (enei). He is widely regarded as a leading expert on diversity and inclusion issues at work, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.



You can contact him at:  /  Twitter: @dan_robertson1