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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Future of HR: Making diversity and inclusion real


In this series I take a look at the future of HR, not through predicting the next structure HR will adopt or giving you demographic trends but through applying a greater understanding of how our brain works and what that application may mean for how HR help organisations achieve greater performance through their people.

As suggested in the other articles in this series, considering these questions as you read on will increase insight.

  • What are the diversity statistics in your company?
  • What’s the business case for diversity and inclusion and how much buy-in is there?
  • Have you tracked how your culture allows decision that are bias?
  • What the level of slow thinking verse fast thinking?

The depressing history of diversity and inclusion – and a personal story

The history of diversity and inclusion is in my view rather depressing and one where HR should get a report rating of ‘could have done better’.

At the risk of giving away my age (one of the strongest areas of prejudice in UK business) let me tell you a story. I did a placement for my post grad in Personnel Management in Manchester with the Equal Opportunities Commission the year it was set up. At the time the commission was solely focused on gender equality.

My report at the end of my assignment was in essence about how the legislation would enable women to move into roles which had previously been dominated by men and men would be free to move into roles previously kept exclusively to women. I very naively wrote about this shift which would take place based on opportunity and preferences. We would see men doing secretarial roles and being air stewards and women being engineers and CEOs. Well I was right.

On a recent flight there was a healthy mix of male and female stewards. However all the cabin managers were men! How could this happen in a role that was so dominated by women in the 70s?

When we look at the other side of the coin, that is women moving into traditional male roles we do see a few bricklayers and senior executives but just a few and recent reports on diversity are not predicting a change any time soon.

Sheryl Sandberg says in the Wall Street Journal “At the current pace of progress, we are more than 100 years away from gender equality in the C-suite”…. Yes, we’re that far away.

Women in the Workplace 2015” is a comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America. Produced by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, the study reveals that despite modest improvements, women remain underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline

 And when we look at ethnic diversity the picture is even more grim in most organisation and let’s not even focus on other forms of diversity because it is just too depressing.

The question is why?

Maybe because of the way we have approached the area. Briefly we could say there have been three areas of focus. These are not exclusive, and they overlap, but do serve to help us think about how we are approaching diversity and inclusion and what will be important in the future.  

  • Compliance with legislation: this was the focus of the original commission and most of HR practice from the 70s onwards and is still a dominate focus in many companies and often used as the stick to get action.
  • Fairness focus: ‘it’s only fair to focus on diversity’ was the main mantra. Needless to say this didn’t get far except in a few high profile cases like CEOs suddenly realising their daughter were being held back and that wasn’t right so they should also do something in their company. This is allegedly why Lehman’s had a strong gender diversity focus as CEO Dick Fuld was incensed by how his daughters had been treated as they went into the working world.
  • Business case: There are endless studies showing that diverse groups perform better and that diverse companies have better financial results. The McKinsey report says companies in the top quartile of gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to out preform financially by 15% and 35% respectively. Numbers like this should convince leaders and HR to make diversity a reality. But because of the way the brain works logic and numbers are unlikely to make the shift which is needed.

How we make decisions

The key reason that limited progress has been made in diversity and inclusion is that the brain’s decision making abilities haven’t evolved as quickly as society has. We naturally develop biases and habits that help us make good decisions but these also lead us to make poor ones.

That’s because we miss important information or limit the things we take into consideration. So we have to be able to spot when bias is influencing us in any given context. And unless this can be ingrained in the way people in organisations make decisions HR will still be battling with diversity issues in the foreseeable future.

Our brain on bias

There are ways our brain has developed that mean we make decisions about people and resources that result in bias. For example the recruiting manager who prefers people from her old university or the lawyer who offers his services to similar clients even when the market is shifting and new opportunities are becoming available. These are biases that occur every day and any one of us can be subject to them. They impact not just decisions of gender and race but how we develop strategy, allocate resources and determine what we view as success and good performance.

Kahneman proposes in Thinking Fast and Slow that we have two ways of thinking:

  • System 1: a fast, instinctive and emotional brain, specialised in identifying and recognising danger as well as rewards such as food, sex or social connection
  • System 2: a slower, more deliberative and more logical brain that uses data and analysis

Kahneman says that because the more cautious and analytical System 2 is lazy and tires easily we often accept the quick-and-dirty assessments of the intuitive and largely unconscious System 1.

“Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is often where decisions are made,” he says.

Kahneman’s analysis suggests we should be taking more time to check our System 1 intuitive decisions by slowing down and engaging System 2; our logical, rational brain. However the pace and general value based on being fast and busy means we often go with the System 1 intuition without giving time to check with System 2.

Other causes of bias

We are ‘wired’ to notice, in as little as 50millisconds, the gender and in a little more time the ethnicity of people we meet. Nearly as quickly we categorise them: either into the in-group (people similar to us) or the out-group (people different to us). 

This categorisation is done by the amygdala outside of conscious awareness but once categorised we respond positively to the in-group and are less well disposed to the out-group.

Whilst this categorisation works well from an evolutionary perspective (it kept us safe from people who might be threatening and meant we formed a bond with those who had common interests) in modern corporations it’s a problem because once categorised we tend to objectify the out-group and over empathise with our in-group. 

The other reason why it is hard to overcome bias is that we like to be right. Being right feels good! It activates the brain’s reward circuitry.

Even if the task is boring and there is no monetary or other reward just doing the task correctly creates activation of the ventral striatum the brain region linked to feelings of reward.

We overlook biases because to acknowledge them would reduce the pleasure of being right; we don’t want to feel wrong because that feels bad. It results in feelings of pain and distress in the brain and activates areas associated with negative emotions such as the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula, regions that are part of the brain’s ‘pain system.’

When we are wrong or make errors (bias decisions) we feel angry and frustrated. The pleasure of being right occurs whether we actually are right or when we believe we are right.

Bias training

Biases help us make good decisions as well as poor ones. Because biases can also mean we miss important information or limit the ideas we consider, we have to be able to spot when bias is influencing us in any given context.

Many UK companies are providing training in decision bias and unconscious bias generally. But is training able to overcome unconscious processing of this type? Or is training a waste of money? This may well be the case because these biases are so numerous, some say there are as many as 150 and happen at an unconscious level, training individuals can raise awareness but will not significantly enable those trained to overcome their biases.

There is little evidence that training people does much to reduce bias.

One way of addressing bias in decision-making is to take more of an organisational development approach, to shift the focus from the individual and look at the whole system. An organisation’s culture and the groups within it can be used to create structures which identify and mitigate bias and use group decision-making to counteract individual bias.

Organisational development approach

First of all, help people to understand what bias is and how it works, share the science about why our brain responds in this way and emphasise that bias is a natural thing despite the pejorative associations that come with the term in everyday conversation.

This is an area where training people is valuable.

Then help people identify bias habits and to familiarise themselves with the terms best used to discuss them accurately, like ‘distance bias’ and ‘similarity bias’.

Finally, set up processes so people can help each other and themselves to mitigate bias. This will include sharing information about what a team can do when faced with potential bias.

Using the brain to combat its own biases

There is evidence that we can use our brain to combat the negative ways it works. Specific brain regions show greater activity when people are able to notice and overcome bias: the regions are the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) which Lieberman has termed the brain’s ‘braking system.’ 

When people are able to apply this mental brake, review their decisions and take a more objective view or when there’s a chance to check their assumptions and intuition with others, then the influence of unconscious bias can be mitigated.

However, it takes discipline to apply the brake and to decide to trust colleagues’ judgement – to listen to their opinion and to be open enough to change tack. These types of factors work best when they’re part of the culture – part of ‘the way we do things around here’ – where the prevailing behaviour is to apply the mental brake. 

The other means of mitigating bias is mindfulness. The more mindful a person is, the more they’re aware of and open to their subjective experience, the more they use their RVLPFC, improving their ability to label emotions, neutralise the threat response and reduce bias.

So if HR is to get a better report rating on diversity and inclusion, using our understanding of how the brain works and making that a positive force for good, rather than perpetuating bias decisions, has to be the way forward.

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Jan Hills


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