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3 Ways to Remove Unconscious Bias with Mindfulness

by Ryan Heinl

3 Ways to Remove Unconscious Bias with MindfulnessUnconscious bias is a big topic of discussion these days, specifically in regard to talent decisions. Beyond the fact that this is a fairness issue, it has real implications for the effectiveness of both teams and organizations.

There’s plenty to read out there about what unconscious bias is and where it comes from, but the best way to describe it is a gut-level response to a situation. Going with your gut is not always a bad thing, as these reflexive decisions have brought our species to the pinnacle of the food chain, after all. However, there is a time and place for these types of decisions, and when you are dealing with complex issues, it’s best to examine your reasoning a bit more.

Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman provides a thorough treatment of this topic in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. His thesis is essentially what I just stated: The heuristics we use to make fast, gut-level decisions are great for situations where the decision results are low impact or when there is limited time to make a call. But when you have a high-impact decision that is complex and multifaceted, simply relying on these fast-twitch decision muscles that are based on past experiences is not the best choice.

Only using your gut or experience in these situations narrows your field of analysis and typically results in—drum roll, please—unconscious bias. We think we’re making the right choice, but because we’re limiting our choices based on our past experiences, we end up not considering a more diverse range of options and possibilities. This is especially true when it comes to people-related decisions.

Making a choice about the right person for a job is complicated and involves so many factors that we often lean hard on our instincts. It’s just easier to go with your gut than to articulate why you like one person over another in analytical detail. This is exactly the kind of trap that Kahneman warns us about, however, and why we often will pick people who fit a certain mold.

So, what can we do to avoid this tendency to rely on our own instincts instead of being more objective? Here are three practices you can consider to reduce the biases that might get in the way of making the best talent-related decisions.

Examine your stories

This is where you can start to employ some "thinking slow” tactics. Instead of being satisfied with your first impression, stop and think for a bit about the person’s story. What is the narrative in your mind telling you about her? We often don’t pay close attention to the thoughts driving that gut-level response. The story is there, though, and if you spend a moment to reflect on what it is, you’ll have the option to play devil’s advocate with yourself.

For example, certain characteristics were important when you began your career as a leader, and they helped to make you successful. But are those the things needed in the current business context? The person in question may not have your same capabilities, but does she have some that are needed now? Could those that she doesn’t have be easily developed and supported?

Cultivate your beginner’s mind

In a previous article, I mentioned the concept of the beginner’s mind. Basically, this means coming to the table as a beginner, no matter how much of an expert you are in any given field, including the fields of leader selection and development. Approaching these discussions with fresh eyes will help to mitigate your unconscious biases when it comes to people decisions.

Cultivating your beginner’s mind is a skill that is invaluable in the business world and, when developed properly, it fuels innovation across the board, especially for people decisions. For example, do you want to take your company in a new direction? Think about the situation as someone brand new to your company, or even to your industry, and brainstorm ideas to revolutionize your business. Without thinking with a beginner’s mind, you probably wouldn’t consider that you may need a new leader at the helm of the company.

The key to this concept is being supremely open to new ideas. We all bring a lot of baggage to everything we’re involved in, which closes us off to possibilities. Starting from a place of “that’s not the right person” shuts down the conversation before it can begin. Leaving your biases and expectations at the door and coming to a talent decision with a completely open mind can be a game changer.

Doing this may seem daunting, but it’s not difficult. It requires paying attention to what opinions you’re coming in with when making these decisions. That meta-awareness will allow you to tame your inner critic who is already narrowing the possibilities before that talent review discussion even begins. The next time you have a talent decision meeting, take a moment right before you walk in the room to take a breath and step back from your thoughts to notice where your mind is taking you.

Train your mind to respond, not react

When we react, it’s reflexive. We are confronted with a situation or information, and we have a knee-jerk reaction, or what Kahneman would call “thinking fast.” Sometimes that works out okay, but other times we react in ways that are driven by less-than-effective emotions, like fear and anger, which can lead to big mistakes. To make matters worse, sometimes we aren’t even aware of these emotions driving our reactions.

Take this situation, for example: You have a leadership placement decision to make. The manager this person would report to is unconsciously afraid that putting one of the candidates into the role who has a different work style from his own will make work challenging. The response from this manager is probably quick and decisive, saying, “Definitely no on Alice,” before anyone else gets a chance to speak up. In his mind, he immediately rationalizes this as the correct decision, and that’s the end of the conversation. Fear made this decision, not analytical thinking, and the company may have missed out on a great leader.

The way to gain some control over these emotionally driven decisions is to start practicing mindfulness. Start by spending five minutes a day meditating. You don’t need a cushion or incense to do this. Just sit in a chair, close your eyes and focus on your breath for five minutes. Observe the thoughts that come in, but don’t get sucked into them. This will help you to build that metacognition muscle. When your mind inevitably starts to wander, acknowledge your thoughts and bring your attention back to your breath. This will help you start to create some space between the stimulus and your response.

Did your gut get it right?

Following these practices won't remove unconscious bias immediately, but they will start to give you some space to consider whether your gut really got it right or whether there is indeed a better option for the talent decision you are about to make.

Try it out and see if you at least find that you widen your view of things. That alone can make all the difference when you are making an important decision for your organization.

Learn how DDI can help you unleash hidden potential in your organization and leverage the power of diversity and inclusion.

Ryan Heinl is Director of Product Management and Leader of DDI’s I-Lab. He develops leading-edge products for lots of great companies around the world which help to align their people with their business strategy. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, Crossfitter, mindfulness junkie, and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).

Posted: 29 Aug, 2018,
Talk to an Expert: 3 Ways to Remove Unconscious Bias with Mindfulness
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