Hidden Bias

Part One – Hidden Bias: The Silent Thief

How High Performance Teams Minimize Unconscious Bias to Maximize Results

The team cooperation between eight senior leaders began to fall apart almost immediately. They were given a specific outcome to achieve under the pressure of time, which required this newly formed group of high potential leaders to work through the challenges by using the many talents of the team.

Team work deteriorated within the first 3- minutes of this experiential exercise, showcasing such sights as small whispers originating from subgroups splintering off by separating themselves according to gender and country of origin, an imposing male standing at the foot of the table pounding his fists on the table as he screamed orders to his peers, while a slight figured female stood leaning forward over the table repeating with increasing volume, “You must listen to me,” over and over. Just as the all out argument reached an ear splitting crescendo, two members of the dissolving team decided to go for tea.

Not the result they had imagined, especially from such an experienced senior team of multinational leaders.

The real result from an experiential exercise designed to surface unconscious behaviors…we all have unconscious bias that block individual and team performance.


Our Blind spots of Bias

Dr. David Rock is on a mission to transform leadership through neuroscience. He coined the term ‘Neuroleadership’ and is the Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development.

Dr. Rock generally describes unconscious bias as “Accidental, unintended, subtle and completely unconscious choices, made by everyone, all the time.” The specifics of how unconscious bias shows up in our lives and workplaces are illustrated by his recent model SEEDS™ of Bias.

  • Similarity: “People like me are better than others”
  • Expedience: “If it feels right to me it must be true”
  • Experience: “My perceptions are accurate”
  • Distance: “Closer is better than distant”
  • Safety: “Bad is stronger than good”

“If you have a brain, you are biased.” Dr. David Rock


A Breakdown of Bias

The unexpected, yet undeniable chaotic and disruptive biased behavior from our previously mentioned senior team brings the SEEDS™ model to life. Let’s take a deeper look into Dr. Rock’s theories and solutions. Can you identify with the examples from his behavioral model? Where has unconscious bias hindered your own team effectiveness?

Similarity: “People like me are better than others”

  • The Scene: The senior team splintered into classic in-group / out-group factions observed first by cultural bias, Asian, US and European, then clusters of genders formed as tension continued to mount. These groups formed and reformed seemingly spontaneously. Dr. Rock suggests this version of bias alters basic perception, empathy and motivation.
  • The Science: Do You Feel My Pain? Racial Group Membership Modulates Empathic Neural Responses, Xiaojing Xu, Xiangyu Zuo, Xiaoying Wang, and Shihui Han, The Journal of Neuroscience, July 1, 2009 • 29(26):8525– 8529 • 8525, “The pain matrix including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) mediates not only first person pain experience but also empathy for others’ pain. It remains unknown, however, whether empathic neural responses of the pain matrix are modulated by racial in-group/out-group relationship. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging we demonstrate that, whereas painful stimulations applied to racial in-group faces induced increased activations in the ACC and inferior frontal/insula cortex in both Caucasians and Chinese, the empathic neural response in the ACC decreased significantly when participants viewed faces of other races. Our findings uncover neural mechanisms of an empathic bias toward racial in-group members.
  • The Solution: Increase “self-like” processing in the medial prefrontal cortex via focusing on similarities between yourself and others (e.g., perspective taking). Dr. Rock sites Daniel Ames of Columbia Business School, Ames, D. L., Jenkins, A. C., Banaji, M. R., & Mitchell, J. P. (2008). Taking another’s perspective increases self-referential neural processing. Psychological Science, 19, 642-644. Ames reminds us that there is unconscious bias of similarity with gender even in the solution. He writes in his 2008 publication In Search of the Right Touch, Interpersonal Assertiveness in Organizational Life,


“Recent results suggest that while appropriate assertiveness is linked to effectiveness for both male and female managers, female managers may be more harshly judged for over assertiveness whereas male managers may be more harshly judged for under assertiveness (Ames, 2008b). Future research might explore how gender, perceiver stereotypes, organizational context, and other factors affect the perception of interpersonal assertiveness.”

Expedience: “If it feels right to me it must be true”

  • The scene: “10 minutes left.” Think about what you need to do most.” was shouted to the room of senior executives by the quick cadenced pacing facilitator. The team dynamic shifted into a flurry of activity. “5 minutes remaining. You need to be finishing this project.” A team of senior level executives that had started out 20 minutes ago with light conversation and politeness at once degenerated into separate factions that passionately and increasingly aggressively pushed their point of view. The exercise ended in failure of the team to achieve the desired result and created both embarrassment and concern over the behavior that was exhibited in just 20 minutes.
  • The Science: Dr. Rock observes the unconscious bias of expediency erupt when we hurry, experience high cognitive load or as a function of limited prefrontal resources. This occurrence is more commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” or “availability bias.”

Cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason studied this phenomenon in the 1960s and his work has been the foundation for explaining behaviors that we observe when individuals or teams are placed in conditions of performance under pressure.

Participants were given the sequence of “2-4-6”, they first formed a hypothesis about the rule: A sequence of even numbers. Then they tried to test this rule by proposing more sequences of numbers that follow this rule. They tried “4-8-10”, “6-8-12”, “20-22-24”. The feedbacks to all these sequences were positive. The subjects give a few more tries until they felt sure about their hypothesis and stopped since they thought they have already discovered the rule. The only thing is, this wasn’t the rule. The rule was simply increasing numbers.

Dr. Rock points to the pressures associated with expediency as a catalyst for confirmation biases, which in the interest of “getting things done quickly “often contributes to overconfidence in personal beliefs, that may dramatically strengthen personal perception and beliefs that when faced with contrary evidence, could contribute to disastrous results.

  • The Solution: Dr. Rock advices to engage your brain’s “braking system” – right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex – to increase self-control and thoughtful, deliberative decision-making. Berkman, The neural basis of rationalization: cognitive dissonance reduction during decision-making, Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011 Sep;6(4):460-7, states “In the first fMRI study to examine the decision phase in a decision-based cognitive dissonance paradigm, we observed that increased activity in right-inferior frontal gyrus, medial fronto-parietal regions and ventral striatum, and decreased activity in anterior insula were associated with subsequent decision-related attitude change. These findings suggest the characteristic rationalization processes that are associated with decision-making may be engaged very quickly at the moment of the decision, without extended deliberation and may involve reappraisal-like emotion regulation processes.”

Take the Bias QBQ Quiz

Now you realize that it’s not a question of”if bias is lodged in your business, it’s “how much” of your crucial decision making is clouded by bias?

Answer these questions behind the question of bias with your team:

  • How much overall agreement is there concerning decisions on your team?
  • Are contrasting views given time to challenge and how open is the team to diverse opinions?
  • How much time pressure does your team face when asked to make decisions? How frequently do you make a less than optimal decision based on ticking off the box under pressure instead of finding the best solution?

Inuous Solutions

Our experience illustrates 3 immediate steps to deal with bias:

  1. Create Awareness: have an honest and open discussion with your team on the Bias QBQ Quiz.
  2. Surface Learning: Where does bias show up and what does it look like in your decision making process? Be specific. Chart out examples that include who, what and where. Call out the bias behavior and not the individual. We all have bias, work towards understanding instead of being right.
  3. Apply to Business Context: Choose one of the areas of your decision making that you’ve identified as being blinded by bias. Put in self governance to be more aware of bias and refine your process over time.

Example: We helped a multinational team create rigor around their own rules of engagement on conference calls. They have 12 members of a leadership team distributed across the globe.

Important decisions need to be made, yet half the group felt they spent too much time in discussion, while the second half felt their opinions were not heard and poor decisions occurred frequently.

Solution: Schedule one meeting for input by members to discuss, challenge and support each other’s point of view. Give permission to call out bias behavior and commit to work as a team to find the best innovative solutions. The next meeting is a fast paced decision making meeting. This style meeting is to the point, short and highly productive with tangible outcomes. Their calls are well attended with high levels of engagement that have increased both meeting moral and business results.