3 Cognitive Biases Perpetuating Racism at Work — and How to Overcome Them

Life is a series of paradoxes. We’re living in a time of many people either temporarily or permanently losing their jobs while other companies are struggling to find qualified people to hire.

When we dip into the labor pool, are we limiting our searches through something called Cognitive Bias?

I ran across this article at the World Economic Forum by Adwoa Bagalini, its Engagement, Diversity, and Inclusion Lead. He identifies three cognitive biases and shares some ideas for overcoming. Not to give away a punchline, but most of us should be students of W. Edwards Deming and/or Taiichi Ohno and should have learned about changing the process, not the individual.

From the paper.

We do know is that lasting, positive change is difficult to achieve without deliberate, sustained effort informed by reliable data that is free from bias. And it’s important not to underestimate the role cognitive bias can play in undermining these efforts – and to stay vigilant in spotting and mitigating it.

What is cognitive bias?

Human brains are hardwired to take shortcuts when processing information to make decisions, resulting in “systematic thinking errors”, or unconscious bias. When it comes to influencing our decisions and judgments around people, cognitive or unconscious bias is universally recognized to play a role in unequal outcomes for people of colour.

1. Moral licensing

This is when people derive such confidence from past moral behaviour that they are more likely to engage in immoral or unethical ways later. In a 2010 study, researchers argued that moral self-licensing occurs “because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard”, and future problematic behaviour does not evoke the same feelings of negative self-judgment that it otherwise would.

Moral licensing may help explain the limitations of corporate unconscious bias training in creating an anti-racist work environment, an effect which has already been observed when it comes to tackling gender inequality.

2. Affinity bias

This is our tendency to get along with others who are like us, and to evaluate them more positively than those who are different. Our personal beliefs, assumptions, preferences, and lack of understanding about people who are not like us may lead to repeatedly favouring ‘similar-to-me’ individuals.

Many hiring managers have a hard time articulating their organization’s specific culture, or explaining what exactly they mean when they say “culture fit”, leading to this being misused to engage employees that managers feel they will personally relate to.

3. Confirmation bias

This is the tendency to seek out, favour, and use information that confirms what you already believe. The other side of this is that people tend to ignore new information that goes against their preconceived notions, leading to poor decision-making.

Many people’s perceptions of others with different identities and with whom they have limited interaction, is strongly influenced by media depictions and longstanding cultural stereotypes.

For example, a 2017 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people tended to perceive young Black men as taller, heavier, and more muscular than similarly sized white men, and hence more physically threatening.

How to overcome unconscious bias

1. Change systems, not individuals

The main reason unconscious bias training programmes fail to have the desired effect in creating lasting change, is that they are focused on changing individual behaviours while leaving largely untouched the systems that enabled those behaviours to thrive.

2. Slow down and act deliberately

Bias is most likely to affect decision-making when decisions are made quickly, according to Stanford University psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt, who studies implicit bias in police departments.

3. Set concrete goals and work towards them

Data is essential to making real progress on diversity goals, and especially important when it comes to mitigating the effects of bias because it provides an objective measure of what has improved – or worsened – over time.

Born To Manufacture

This is a stylized bullet used in aircraft machine guns during World War II. By 1940 my grandfather had become a manufacturing production superintendent of a GM plant in Dayton, Ohio that manufactured Frigidaire refrigerators. With the entrance of the US into the war, the Army figured weaponry was more important than refrigerators. They took over the plant and converted it to the manufacture of machine gun bolts to arm aircraft.

When I was quite young, grandpa would tell me stories of how production sucked and a general came to him and gave him the job of turning the plant around and getting production going. The pressure was intense. “We’ve got boys dying over there and we need this support,” he was often told.

By age 10, I had heard (probably several times) about how he had taken a couple of days to stand up on the mezzanine and watch. Then he began reorganizing the equipment and processes to reduce wasted time and motion. And got production up to where it should have been.

He also told me stories of being an apprentice machinist at The Monarch Machine Tool Company making huge lathes and other machinery.

So, I grew up on manufacturing stories. About the lessons he learned when the company sent him to General Motors Institute for classes (not bad for a guy whose step-father wouldn’t let him finish high school).

When I started my career working in manufacturing, I carried his lessons. We were “Lean” before Lean was a thing. If only I were a writer back then…

However

I read many political theorists in graduate school and was deeply affected by reading a short piece by the young Karl Marx on alienation. Marx meant by this that in the days prior to industrialization a craftsman built an entire thing. There was a little piece of “him” in everything he made. It was his creativity, knowledge, skill that went into making something that someone could use for a long time. I knew some craftsmen when I was young. They had little schooling, but they were some of the smartest and most creative people I’ve ever known.

Industrialization and mass production brought with it the assembly line. Men (and sometimes women and children under terrible conditions) would be hired at poor wages. They neither had nor were provided with training for skills needed to build a product. Rather, the people were merely a replaceable component in a big and inhumane system. Marx called this “alienation” as in humans were alienated from the fruits of their labor. Fifty years of labor unrest, protests, violence followed as people protested the conditions. And also how a very few became very rich while almost everyone else lived in poverty.

Seth Godin produced some thoughts on this topic (not Marx, but industrialization) in his latest Akimbo podcast. Listen to this and the prior one on Interoperability to get you thinking about the morals and ethics of what we do.

On the one hand, we who strive to make industrial manufacturing and production better provide much benefit to our societies. On the other hand, we need to take care to consider the effects of what we do on people, environment, and society.

I had not intended it since I’m not much of a holiday type of person, but these thoughts seem to go along with the US celebration of Labor Day this weekend. I hope you have a happy and safe one.

Podcast Passion for Teaching Thinking

Maurice Ashley immigrated to a tough part of New York City from Jamaica and later worked diligently to become the first African-American chess grandmaster. Later, he became a teacher of chess to inner city youth. His passion for teaching shines strongly in his interview with Tim Ferriss. I listen to almost an hour of podcasts a day while I workout. Another of my favorites is Wednesday with Seth Godin on Akimbo. Recently quoting Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman as saying I don’t understand people now. They just want answers given to them. They cannot think things through. Seth also tells of an experience with straight-A students where he showed them a gadget and asked them to explain how it worked. They couldn’t. They all just got out notebooks and pens ready to write down the answer. I riff off these for my latest Podcast.

Entrepreneurship: Building the Amazon of Africa

PR people often send me review copies of new books. In this case, I received an invitation from the author. I just finished Chasing Black Unicorns: How building the Amazon of Africa put me on Interpol’s Most Wanted List by Marek Zmyslowski

As in many good stories, this one is true on many levels. You can read it as the adventures of a young man maturing into wisdom, experience, and perspective.

It’s also a story of entrepreneurship. How there does exist a “glamorous” side, but also extremely hard work, long hours, strenuous travel. And also attracting liars. cheats, backstabbers, crooks, huge egos. Then again beautiful women, much liquor, parties. It’s all here.

Zmyslowski includes not only his successes, but also his failures. His decisions both right and wrong.

Along the way, we learn as much about ourselves as about him.

As an American born and raised in the Midwest, I was also fascinated by his descriptions of life in Poland, Nigeria, South Africa, and more. It is also instructive to hear what someone outside of the country thinks about the US.

We have grown accustomed to media alternately glamorizing the crop of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and billionaires only to jump on any who are down. Very much like the PR machine developed in the 1920s to glamorize movie actors and actresses who in all previous history were considered outside of respectability. This story provides a raw look inside the sausage factory to show how the sausage is made.

These stories also caused me to pause and reflect on my own experiences with small startups. None ever grew, which is why I am where I am today. But I also met my share of liars, cheats, backstabbers. On the other hand, I’ve met many great people and learned much about success and failure.

It’s a good read.

Practice the Art of Possibility

The elderly Mr. Withers leaned over me and whispered, “What? You’ve been practicing it for three minutes, and you still can’t play it?” (Ben Zander’s early cello teacher to the young Benjamin.)

I just finished a couple of good books last week. This quote was from Benjamin Zander in the book he wrote with his wife Rosamund Stone Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. This is not a new book, but it was recently recommended to me. She is a family therapist and coach. He is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and an amazing teacher. (Search YouTube for Ben Zander and you see examples of marvelous teaching of young musicians.) He also speaks to company executives about leadership.

People, that would be all of us, often try something for a short time, a few minutes, find it difficult, and quit. Meditation, study, eating well, exercising, calming a temper…

The Zanders’ book offers 12 practices for transforming your professional and personal life. “Our practices will take a good deal more than three minutes to master. Additionally, everything you think and feel and see around you will argue against them. So it takes dedication, a leap of faith, and, yes, practicing to get them into your repertoire.

It’s like the old joke about the young man carrying a violin case stopping someone on the street in New York City and asking, “How can I get to Carnegie Hall?” The quick reply, “Practice, my boy, practice.”

This book offers practices that are transformational. Digital transformation spews forth from the lips and computers of many of my colleagues and marketers. However, without personal and professional transformation, we may not be able to take advantage of this digital “revolution.”

These practices are geared toward causing a total shift of posture, perceptions, beliefs, and thought processes. They are about transforming your entire world.

I will not discuss all 12 practices. Rather I’ll pull out a few that I found especially impactful.

Possibility. We can look at obstacles, or we can see possibilities. The action in a universe of possibility may be characterized as generative, or giving, in all senses of that word—producing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.

Contribution. Instead, life is revealed as a place to contribute and we as contributors. Not because we have done a measurable amount of good, but because that is the story we tell.

When I began playing the game of contribution, on the other hand, I found there was no better orchestra than the one I was conducting, no better person to be with than the one I was with; in fact, there was no “better.” In the game of contribution you wake up each day and bask in the notion that you are a gift to others.

The practice of this chapter is inventing oneself as a contribution, and others as well. The steps to the practice are these: 1.  Declare yourself to be a contribution. 2.  Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why. The contribution game appears to have remarkable powers for transforming conflicts into rewarding experiences.

I leave you with this little story about creating a certain culture of humility.

Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.

When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?”

“Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.’” “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” “There aren’t any.”

Pick up a copy and read it a couple of times. Then practice.

Restarting Manufacturing After The Covid-19 Shutdown

Someday soon we’ll be going back to work. Some, of course, are already working in manufacturing under the new regime. Many questions lurk for those planning to get moving again.

To find out more, I spoke with Kim Wallace, executive vice president of Hire Dynamics a staffing consulting company focused on the Southeastern US.

She told me that after the first shock of cutting back or closing, companies began reevaluating their workforce and job descriptions. The first order of business was what jobs needed to be maintained and which employees could work from home. Then came the difficult decisions of furloughs and lay offs. Managers would evaluate balancing personnel needs per department. What is driving the frenetic activity? Cash flow. All of who have been in business know that cash is king. Many companies needed to stop the bleeding.

Hire Dynamics provides strategic consulting on workforce issues and was quickly called in to help management develop strategies for a situation no one knew how long would last.

When it’s time to start up, employees have many considerations, all of which have ramifications for the company. In some cases, going back to work could actually mean a pay cut for the employee who is better off financially to stay home. Some have childcare or elder care situations where there is no alternative to their being home to provide that care. Many will be nervous and concerned about returning to work only to become infected by the coronavirus—despite efforts to reduce the risk.

Many people do want to work, though. And companies need to get production going or die.

So, what does it take to start up again? The threat of virus spreading is still real. No one wants to have most of its workforce and its management team home sick with the possibility of several dying.

This takes a strategy. Companies such as Hire Dynamics are there to help companies plan and start up.

Wallace pointed out that most companies are worried about three things: cash flow, culture, and image. Managing cash flow is crucial for all businesses, and especially for small to mid-sized enterprises (SMEs). This calls for phased start up balancing workers with sales. As companies bring back employees and face necessity of bringing in new hires, they need to be mindful both of maintaining their culture and also developing a culture of health practices. Aware of how decisions impact their image in their communities and their industries, companies need to manage the startup well.

Strategies

Companies cannot afford for the virus to spread throughout the entire management team. They, therefore, stagger management team days at work so that if someone spreads the infection it will not spread to the entire team. Considering production people the first strategy is to adjust shifts so that they do not congregate exiting and entering. If at all possible, have different doors for entering and exiting to keep some separation.

Companies may need help with signage to direct people where and how to enter and leave. They need procedures for temperature screening employees entering for their shifts. Do managers do the screening leaving them at higher risk of infection? Or hire medical technicians?

Another consideration is sanitizing. Perhaps the best strategy is for each shift to sanitize when they arrive at their workstations and then again just before they leave. They will need procedures and training on sanitizing. Note that all this needs to be part of the clock in/clock out procedure. Speaking of company image, management must be cognizant of the impact of decisions unlike a very large company who earned a lot of bad press and congressional scrutiny by doing much of that work off the clock on employee time.

Here are some of the policy and procedure and practical help that Hire Dynamics can provide:

  • Signage
  • Sanitizing
  • Procedures
  • Break rooms (close? Eat at stations? Other things.)
  • Restrooms (block every other sink and toilet stall, etc.)