Working together in small or large teams with colleagues from various backgrounds, education levels, interests and professional fields offers a great opportunity to learn from diversity. Especially if we know how to navigate these teams correctly, and stay away from preconceived judgments, also known as biases. So what are biases exactly? And how do our sometimes unknown biases affect the way we work with others?
Biases – a definition
The Oxford Dictionary defines biases as “an inclination or prejudice against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.”
However, biases are not always hateful and negative, they might in fact often be meant as a positive compliment, but there are huge dangers here. Of course there are levels to this, but we all embody some degree of biases towards others, because this is how we have survived over thousands of years. It’s a core human ability to evaluate and recognize friend from foe, without even ever having talked to that person. So what might be a very important skill for survival, can be detrimental in the work space.
Can biases be positive?
You might have heard or said something along the lines of this yourself; I love working with people from ____ because they are very productive and fast working. This is a great example of biases that are meant to be a compliment, but should not find place in a work space. First off, this might be very hurtful to the person as it stereotypes them in a very direct way, but another danger is that you completely misunderstand the value your colleague can actually bring to your team, by closing an eye to their actual personal skills. We are all individuals here, with our own core strengths and weaknesses, and biases are the enemy of utilizing those skills to the fullest.
Here is a few quick examples of biases in the work space that you might have experienced to some degree yourself:
- You might think someone from a certain area are by nature more lazy or productive than others, and therefore expect less/more of them than your other colleagues.
- You might hire one person over another equally qualified talent, because the first candidate seems more familiar to you and therefore feels like a safer bet.
- You might overlook someone’s personal strengths, because you think it’s based on where they are from or what they are (gender, age, etc) rather than who they actually are (typical examples; women are more caring than men, men are more straight to the point than women – and same examples can be used for nations and people overall).
There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea. The problem is that you might end up really offending someone, without knowing or intending to. And you might lose really good people because you chose the wrong candidate allowing your biases to be part of the decision. Let’s take a look at the most common unconscious biases, and how they might negatively affect your team;
Ageism is a bias where we evaluate candidates and colleagues based on their age. In some cases we might favor younger candidates if we believe that they are more effective and quicker to get things done than their older counterparts. In other situations we might favor more senior candidates based on a preconceived notion that they are by nature more knowledgeable than their junior team mates. Neither of these cases are positive as they are not always true and might lead to the wrong candidate being hired, or provide unfair advantages in the daily workload of each team member.
Affinity bias is based on the principle that we tend to favor people who are similar to ourselves. This is especially dangerous in the hiring process and is often related to age, gender, background, race and more. If we are not familiar with affinity biases during the hiring process, we often end up with a team that is lacking in diversity.
Conformity bias is when our opinions and choices are led by the opinions of the majority, similar to peer pressure, rather than critically forming our own opinions. This can be very dangerous to the company as new and inspiring ideas might be overlooked. A good way to avoid this is by allowing votes and opinions to be delivered anonymously, or simply actively encouraging new ideas as a core principle during meetings.
Confirmation bias speaks to our need to confirm ideas and information rather than being open minded to new ways of thinking or different results all together. Essentially it is a need to prove that we are correct, rather than seeking out the actual truth in a situation. This can be a belief that one solution is better than another, or that our first impression of a person is correct. The dangers of confirmation bias is that we continue working in the wrong direction, rather than creating real value based on facts, or even worse – never have the chance to get to know a person for who they really are and what skills they can bring to the team.
How do you avoid biases?
If being biased is such a natural part of the human experience, how do we then avoid it in the workplace?
Step one is to become aware of which biases you do have, and that they do in fact come natural to all of us. Let’s use the example above with women being more caring – is this actually true for every single human being on the planet? Or is it always the case that senior candidates are more knowledgeable than their junior counterparts? Of course not, so it’s important to understand that this is part of creating a filter on how we see the world and the people in it.
Awareness and action
Awareness is key, and action follows closely. If we are aware of the most common biases when hiring new candidates, it is much easier to avoid acting on them. Perhaps bringing in another team member who differs from you in the hiring process, or simply evaluating the candidates based on technical tests is a good way to start a bias-free hiring process.
Look at the team you are working with today – do you have any biases that hinders you from really knowing your fellow team mates and their personal skills and lackings? Take action and be honest with yourself. Knowing that this happens to the best of us, might make it less scary to take that good look in the mirror and face your biases first hand.
ONLY make up your opinion about someone based on your experience with that person, and not your preconceived ideas of them. Be open to being wrong about them, as if you don’t know who they are, where they come from or what they think – because this is almost always 100% the case anyway.