Posted: 05 Apr. 2015 5 min. read

Unconscious bias in the work place⁠—Business Chemistry as a solution?

What if you don’t know your own mind as well as you think you do?

In their 2013 book Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Binaji and Anthony Greenwald reveal some surprising statistics about how many of us have biases toward African Americans, women, the elderly, and many other classifications of people. We’re often unaware of these biases, and in fact, our conscious or stated attitudes may conflict with them.1

(You can test for your own hidden biases by trying out the Implicit Association Test but be warned, you may be unpleasantly surprised.)

Where do these biases come from? From your brain’s attempt to cope with the overwhelming amount of information it has to process every day. It simply can’t handle the data points rushing at it from every direction, and so your brain simplifies the world by categorizing just about everything, and that includes people. Essentially, it automatically engages in stereotyping.

I suspect most of us would prefer not to operate under the influence of unconscious biases and we’d likewise prefer that others don’t. When I’m speaking with a group of leaders I’d prefer that their brains aren’t homing in on the fact that I’m a woman, or that I have a slight Midwestern accent, or that I have blond hair–these characteristics should be irrelevant in that situation. But the research suggests that their brains likely ARE focused on these things and further, that they’re forming an impression of me based on the associations they have with those categories. Without knowing it, my audience members are likely deciding that I’m emotional (a common association with women), that I’m “Minnesota-nice,” and if they’ve heard too many blond jokes, well . . . it’s not good.

So, if we’d rather not be judging each other in this way, what can we do about it?

That’s where Business Chemistry comes in. I’ll suggest that one way to mitigate the impact of our brain’s unconscious categorizations based on workplace-irrelevant factors is by encouraging conscious categorization based on workplace-relevant factors. In other words, if the leaders I’m speaking with a focus in on the fact that my Business Chemistry type is Guardian, the associations their brains are making will likely now be more relevant to the situation. Their impression of me now may be that I’m detail-oriented, meticulous, and risk-averse, and also that I’m likely to be a bit stubborn.

What I’m suggesting is something akin to taking away a pair of scissors that a toddler has gotten a hold of. You can snatch the scissors away, and you can try to reason with her, but replacing the scissors with a hand-mirror is probably a better bet.

I’m proposing that rather than simply trying not to have unconscious biases, or trying somehow to reason ourselves out of the associations we have, one of the simplest solutions may be to meet our brain’s fundamental need for categorization with a different way of categorizing⁠—one we CHOOSE and are fully aware of.

There’s evidence that this type of replacement strategy works when we’re trying to break a habit, such as eating a donut each day as a mid-afternoon snack. Instead of just trying to resist the donut, it’s more effective to create a new routine that replaces the habit, like taking an afternoon walk.2 If unconscious categorization can be seen as a habit we’d like to break, then replacing it with a new routine, like focusing in on one’s Business Chemistry type, should help.

Is this the perfect solution to unconscious bias in the workplace? No, it’s not perfect. By definition, categorizing anything means simplifying, and that means overlooking some nuance. Maybe I’m a Guardian who is NOT stubborn, and now my audience will erroneously think that I am. You might suggest it would be better to get to know each and every person we encounter individually, and it probably would. But most of us encounter far too many people in a given week, or even on a given day, to get to know them all personally. So instead, I’ll recommend a couple of strategies for using this replacement approach responsibly:

• First, remind yourself and each other often that categories are simplifications and must be taken with a grain of salt. One exercise that helps drive this home is for each member of a team to share and discuss one trait that is characteristic of their Business Chemistry type but does NOT apply to them personally.

• Second, identify those individuals for whom it’s critical you get beyond categories to learn about their unique characteristics⁠—may be your boss, those who report to you, and anyone about whom you are making highly impactful decisions, such as whether to hire or promote them or how to rate their performance.

What do you think? Could Business Chemistry help us reduce unconscious bias in the workplace?

 

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Endnotes

Binaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: The hidden biases of good people.Random House, Inc.
2 Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.Random House, Inc.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.