Understanding Unconscious Bias

By Diane Morris and Rob Runett

Fools are a curious bunch who love to ask questions. Recently, those questions have been focused on how our brains are wired to make decisions.

In the process of asking, we’ve joined a wave of progressive companies who offer unconscious bias workshops to their employees. During the past eight months, we’ve learned from others and deeply dug into neuroscience research to build our own workshop. Our primary goals are to create general awareness of unconscious bias, share examples of how it exists in the workplace and beyond, and provide some “bias-busting” takeaways that Fools can use right away.

During our workshop, we define unconscious bias as an implicit association or attitude that:

Operates beyond our control and awareness

Informs our perception of a person or social group
Influences our decision-making and behavior toward the target of the bias

At the Fool, we see many parallels between understanding unconscious bias and our approach to investing. As Foolish investors, we recognize that social pressures, incomplete information, and market volatility can shape investment choices. It’s easy to make a hurried decision to buy or sell a stock without fully thinking it through.

While that decision may seem natural and obvious in the moment, it ends up hurting portfolio performance in the long term. Foolish investing means emphasizing rational decisions and careful analysis over snap judgments. We wondered, how can we apply our stock market investing values and strategies to decisions about our people and culture?

After some wonderful conversations with connections at Google and Facebook, we decided it was time to introduce our own workshop. Attendance is voluntary, and the workshop incorporates new findings and small-table breakouts to foster discussion. The workshop introduces the underlying neuroscience of bias, and we discuss studies that indicate where we’re particularly likely to be influenced by biases in the workplace.

One of the most powerful quotes we’ve seen in our research is simply, “If you have a brain, you have bias.” While we know Fools are smart and kind – we like to say we don’t hire jerks, after all – we must realize we are all prone to errors in decision making. And as we’ve shared our learnings with Fools, it’s become even more clear how all companies can benefit from introducing the lessons and language of unconscious bias to their teams.

Bias - March  2016

Understanding bias allows us to be more thorough, careful, and deliberate when we decide who to hire, who to put on a project team, and even who to talk to at a Fool event. All of these choices have powerful implications for our organizational development and our culture; in order to invest fully in our people, we have to be diligent about making great decisions, recognizing strengths and talents in seemingly unlikely places, and seeking diverse perspectives.

The biggest takeaways for individual Fools on understanding unconscious bias seem almost painfully obvious: take your time; question your first impressions; ask questions rather than make assumptions.

At an organizational level, we’re working to structure our decision-making environments and processes for success: before Fools write each other 360 Feedback and before team leads discuss their Fools’ development, we share reminders about biases and how to avoid being susceptible to them.

We’ve just begun to scrape the surface of everything we can do to be great decision-makers, so we’ll continue to develop and refine our initiatives as we go along. If you have questions or want to learn more about what we’re doing, please reach out!

Helpful Resources:

Google: https://library.gv.com/unconscious-bias-at-work-22e698e9b2d#.umnx9m692

Facebook: https://managingbias.fb.com/

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