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Steer clear of biases at the workplace

Guard against a divisive culture by identifying what biases can look like and then learning how not to fall for them

Biases can impact the psychological safety that employees feel within a setup.
Biases can impact the psychological safety that employees feel within a setup. (iStock)

As a workplace consultant, what I have noticed working with organisations is that there are certain biases that can come in the way of how they function. These biases can impact the psychological safety that employees feel within a setup. A good way to understand bias is to see it as a preference or a shortcut that is used to make decisions. 

Biases as a result lead to not just prejudice but also preconceived judgements. When we are biased, we operate in ways where we take decisions that are not based on evidence. While each one of us has our own biases, most people seem to be unaware of how they show up. 

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Whether it’s hiring, decision-making, promotion, space for exploring new ideas, diversity, and inclusion: all these areas are likely to be negatively impacted if biases aren’t checked for. That’s why an awareness of what biases can look like is the first step leaders can take to identify and in turn learn how not to fall for them.

It is the similarity bias that often leads to a divisive culture. What is known as similarity or affinity bias has to do with how we prefer or choose people who are similar to us. We unconsciously end up choosing people who we believe may have similar beliefs, temperament, characteristics or traits that we seem to imbibe and are proud of. This shows up in the context of how work is allocated, team dynamics and then who feels heard and seen in a meeting. 

I remember working with a team manager around unconscious bias and how it affects our choices within groups. She mentioned that she identifies as an introvert and in her teams, without realising, she seems to prefer or overly identify with other introverts. This comes in the way of team structure and cohesion. 

Affinity bias also shows up based on factors relating to age, gender, social class, race and personality. What these biases lead to is an in-group versus out-group culture. This impacts an employee’s morale, ability to show up in authentic ways and leads to a feeling of discrimination. In organisations where there is a pressure to respond in a certain way, and similarity bias, innovation suffers. Diversity and inclusion take a beating when teams or organisations fall for similarity bias.

The good news is that teams can be made aware of this, and diverse views and opinions are heard.

Another bias that shows up often is confirmation bias. This manifests in the ways that we seek out information, opinions and even evidence that supports our beliefs and hypothesis. As a result, what happens is that we may end up selectively paying attention to information, retaining data that fits with our beliefs, and not acknowledging evidence or facts that contradict our beliefs and even choices. This, in turn, dilutes the effectiveness of the decision-making process. 

At workplaces this often shows up in the context of the kind of questions that are asked, which team member’s feedback is preferenced and underestimating or downplaying contradictory pieces of information in order to avoid dissonance.

In my organisational work, what I have recognised is as we choose to build psychological safety and openly address unconscious and subconscious biases, employees begin to get better at checking themselves when they fall for this bias. One way to address this is to get feedback from across team members. This process of seeking evidence and diverse different opinions can help us in not falling for bias.

Organisations need to make a mindful investment in working with employees to recognise the biases so that leaders can become aware of their own blind spots.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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