HR and people management

Break bias to build a stronger team

Lubna Shuja, vice president of the Law Society, sat down with Travelers Europe to discuss bias in the workplace, how to minimise it and be an ally.

As much as we might think we can be objective, we all have biases – and can be affected by the biases of others whether we know it or not.

Do you know how to manage and mitigate the biases that exist in yourself and in others? Learning how to do so can help you build a more diverse, inclusive, self-aware, and successful organisation.

Lubna Shuja, vice president of the Law Society, and Christine Williams, managing general counsel at Travelers Europe, weighed in on how they have experienced and managed bias in their own careers in a recent Travelers Talks podcast with Sharon Glynn.

“We’re all affected by bias,” Lubna said. “Understanding our biases can help us mitigate them in our actions and behaviours – and make sure they don’t affect our decisions.”

To identify where bias may be hiding in plain sight in your organisation, it can help to understand the common types of bias that impact people:

  • unconscious bias exists where a person attaches qualities to certain groups. Those views may influence their attitudes, behaviours and decision-making. Assuming that women are better suited to caregiving responsibilities in a family is one example of unconscious bias
  • people show affinity bias when they favour those with whom they share qualities or experiences. This could occur when a hiring manager favours a candidate from their hometown – or even when a person plans a networking weekend at a ski resort each year, assuming attendees are comfortable on the slopes
  • confirmation bias is when we look for or interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe. A person who thinks men are more decisive leaders might more naturally notice when a man speaks confidently in a meeting or displays other qualities associated with leadership
  • when people favour those in their network or vicinity – something prevalent during the transition to hybrid work – proximity bias is at play. It could impact who is considered for a sought-after assignment or role, or whose input is remembered during a meeting with both in-person and remote participants

Bias in action – and actions to mitigate it

Once while working as an underwriter, Christine had an opportunity to develop business in Argentina – and even though she had done similar work in Cuba, she was told it was inappropriate for a woman to take the assignment in Argentina.

Because the firm she was working for told Christine this directly, she could ask them what evidence they had that a woman couldn’t develop business in the market.

“I strongly suspect that it was a question of not only being a woman in that market but also a woman of colour,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t know you’re on the wrong side of the bias.”

Whether bias is explicit or implicit, the good news is there are tools a business can use to better filter it out.

Lubna says that when they recruit for positions at the Law Society, they try to omit the details of a candidate’s name, gender, background, education and age when making their decision.

Similarly, she suggested that managers can allocate work blindly to reduce bias. At the employee level, frequent training and exercises can help people see biases they didn’t know they had and gain confidence to challenge the ones they witness in their organisation.

Sharon said combining awareness and conscious action is the formula for managing biases. By being aware that bias exists in everyone and taking steps to prevent it from influencing our behaviours and decision-making, we can become better allies to others.

“It’s about advancing a culture of inclusivity through intentional, positive and conscious action,” Sharon said.

Christine said being a good ally requires an individual to listen, understand and speak up about bias. Doing so can help a person understand what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes.

To support this, an organisation can encourage reverse mentoring to give an employee a better understanding of experiences they wouldn’t know otherwise.

A manager can accept criticism calmly and with an open mind. Sometimes we may express a bias without even realising we’re offending another person – and we can grow if we are open to challenges and willing to change and evolve.

Leaders have a significant responsibility to appreciate that they are not subject to the biases faced by employees at lower levels of the organisation. They can create safe places for employees to share feedback and hire diverse leaders to serve as role models in the organisation.

“Allyship means using your privilege to lift people up,” Lubna said. “While you’re climbing the ladder, you should be pulling people up so their climb is easier.”

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