Different thinking: cognitive diversity and unconscious bias

Diversity in recruitment
They know something you don’t.

There is a lot of talk about unconscious bias – but what exactly is it? And what impact does it have on your ability to build a strong and sustainable business?

The definition

Psychologists talk about “unconscious biases” rather than the singular “bias”. These are defined as learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, and influential on behaviour.

In all areas of our lives, unconscious biases impact on the most common decisions we make. In particular, more and more studies have demonstrated that decision-making processes in the workplace are subject to subconscious interference, and usually the worst offenders are those who believe themselves free from bias.

Hiring processes, promotions, and disciplinary issues should be approached with pure objectivity, but are often influenced by unconscious biases. This can lead to various levels of discrimination, whether on the grounds of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, age, status or disability. Most of these are protected characteristics under law (at least in the UK and most of the EU), which means that, if discrimination can be proven, your business can be exposed to legal action.

A different diversity

However, having team members of varying ethnicity, age and gender does not necessarily make a team diverse. In a Hive Learning webinar two years ago, Manoj Badale, co-founder of Blenheim Chalcot, and the writer Matthew Syed argued that if you have a room filled with people who apparently look diverse but who have all been educated by the same university or have worked within the same business for years, they will all have developed a similar way of thinking.

Syed, in his book Rebel Ideas, stresses the idea of “cognitive diversity” to create meaningful and systematic change while sustaining high levels of performance. Research has suggested that the multiple insights gained from cultural differences promotes creative problem-solving and innovation.

Supporting a cognitively diverse work environment isn’t an easy task: it requires someone with strong leadership skills that is willing to stand up to the traditional and ‘comfortable’ way of thinking, and is prepared to have their own assumptions and habits challenged. But, Syed argues, the challenge is worth it, as true diversity can lead to sustained success.

The measures taken

So how do you create a truly cognitively diverse workforce?

One way of doing this is by adopting a holistic – rather than segmented – view of your recruitment process. It is not simply a matter of diversifying a team, but also about diversifying the hiring process as a whole.

Reducing bias should not only be a priority in the final stages of recruitment, it is also necessary when defining the pool of candidates at the start. If you are using a headhunter, ask them to define the areas they are looking in, and to spread the field wide to include new approaches and backgrounds. If you are recruiting for yourself, start to consider potential candidates from analogous but distinct sectors of industry.

You need to assure that all stages – from the marketing of a role to the final selection of a candidate – do not indulge your unconscious preferences. There are a number of approaches that businesses have taken to this challenge, the most widespread being unconscious bias training. Harvard Business professor Francesca Gino stressed that “awareness training is the first step to unravelling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own”.

Beyond that, there are other practical bias-reducing measures that can be taken in the recruitment cycle. For example, studies show that women typically apply for a role only if they feel 100% at ease with the requirements, whilst men will apply with only a 60% fit. One way of minimising this gender bias involves reworking job descriptions, as even the most subtle word choices can have a significant impact on the application pool. Research has suggested that the adoption of a more masculine-oriented language, using adjectives like ‘competitive’ and ‘determined’ results in women perceiving they would not be a compatible fit within the work environment. On the contrary, words like ‘collaborative’ and ‘cooperative’ tend to attract women more than men. Job descriptions should be formulated with either a completely neutral tone or balancing both female- and male-oriented language.

Other strategies include ‘blinding’ the CV review process, removing candidates’ names and photographs to ensure that you are focusing purely on your candidates’ specific qualifications and abilities as opposed to their demographic characteristics. Software programs that help blind this stage of the recruitment cycle will help improve a firm’s chances of including the most relevant candidates in the interview pool.

Another important factor to consider in favour of reducing unconscious bias is the standardisation of interviews. Unstructured interviews which lack the ability to highlight the skills and experience of a candidate are unreliable predictors of job success. You are better to design standardised questions which can be asked of all candidates, examining their core competencies and values. At the end of each interview, score the candidate against your key criteria to ensure consistency. You can find more tips in the booklet we published on gender-blind recruitment.

Of course, it is onerous to change the recruitment processes you have used for years. But it will pay off in the end.

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Martin Tripp Associates is a specialist executive search consultancy. We work globally across the media, information, technology and entertainment sectors, and with some of the world’s biggest brands on senior communications, digital, marketing and technology roles. Feel free to contact us to discuss.