Stereotypes and Biases in Business: Prevention is Better than Cure

Stereotypes help us categorize and understand the world around us, but they also lead to distorted biases which can be bad for business. Here’s why we need to undercut them to overcome them.

Can we stop being biased? Probably not. So then how can Innodirect claim to offer “bias-free” collaboration?

We have been asked this question many times over the past six years. In short, the answer lies not in attempting to eliminate existing biases in business, but by changing the process of collaboration and communication to prevent biased thinking from developing in the first place. In order to do this, it’s useful to understand where our biases (or preferences) and stereotypes (more widely-held, oversimplified ideas) originate.

According to a study on stereotypes at Harvard University, due to constant daily bombardment of information, humans have learned to categorize everything. We can quickly pick out the differences between groups (snakes = dangerous, worms = harmless) and discard the rest. In this way, stereotyping is a kind of “mental shortcut”, freeing up cognitive space to focus on other things. This lets us process information faster, allowing for more rapid decision-making. In fact, categorization has been essential to human existence, helping us avoid typically dangerous situations. “Our ability to categorize and evaluate is an important part of human intelligence” says Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology professor at Yale university, in a Psychology Today article, “without it, we couldn’t survive“.

Efficient? Perhaps. Especially when making judgements about whether or not to poke that snake we just saw in our garden. But stereotypes are also often persistently inaccurate, argues John Bargh, Ph.D., of New York University. Researchers have demonstrated that we’re predisposed to zone-in on differences that confirm pre-existing stereotypes, adding to the cycle of a stereotype’s confirmation and continuation. This concept of recognising only what we already think to be true and ignoring all other aspects feeds into something English psychologist Peter Wason termed “confirmation bias”.

Biases are personal preferences and prejudices that inform and can be informed by stereotypes. For example, the stereotype that blondes are intellectually inferior might lead us to prefer doing business with a brunette. Biases can be unconscious, where assumptions about specific groups are automatically made, and cognitive, where flawed judgement is used. Moral and social implications aside, biases present major roadblocks for businesses that seek to innovate. It’s a problem not just in terms of individual, “thinking outside the box” creativity, but also in terms of discriminating against others or being discriminated against. The result is: either we’re not open to listening to ideas from alternative sources or we’re not being heard no matter how innovative our ideas may be.

Many organizations have turned to “diversity training” to counteract this very problem. But diversity training, according to Iris Bohnet, director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, is ineffective. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Bohnet describes how most diversity training programs simply don’t work. “For beliefs to change, people’s experiences have to change first” so, Bohned suggests, instead of hosting more workshops or attempting to eliminate discrimination caused by biases, companies should rather “redesign their processes to prevent biased choices in the first place”.

The solution, Bohnet claims, lies in technology that renders people anonymous. “I’m big fan of tools… that allow employers to blind themselves to applicants’ demographic characteristics. The software allows hiring managers to strip age, gender, educational and socioeconomic background, and other information out of résumés, so they can focus on talent only”. This kind of technology could potentially change not just the way we do business, but human behaviour itself. By neutralizing our biases, HBR’s Gardiner Morse says, we can “(break) the link between our gut reactions and our actions” and “unleash untapped talent”. It’s easy to see how a fundamental shift like this would allow businesses to tap into a more profound and multidimensional way of problem-solving while amplifying the benefits of a diverse workforce.

Now, wouldn’t it be great if there were an easily-accessible tool we could all use to neutralize our biases? And wouldn’t it be super if that tool also allowed us to connect, collaborate and communicate openly with our colleagues, bosses, customers and various sectors of our businesses… bias-free?

Oh wait, there is.

Cut the bias and achieve tangible growth. Take your first steps with us.


Kirsten Sokolovski
Innodirect Team

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