Two Powerful Ways Managers Can Curb Implicit Biases

Executive Summary

Many managers want to be more inclusive, but they don’t know how to get there. They are often not given the right tools to overcome the challenges posed by implicit biases. Research shows there are two, small—but more powerful—ways managers can block bias: First, by closely examining and broadening their definitions of success, and second, by asking what each person adds to their teams, what we call their “additive contribution.”

When hiring, evaluating, or promoting employees, we often measure people against our implicit assumptions of what talent looks like—our hidden “template of success.” These templates potentially favor one group over others, even if members of each group were equally likely to be successful. We need to challenge the assumptions behind our templates for success. We need to ask if the criteria used to evaluate candidates will lead us to choose employees who will add to our team success or simply replicate the status quo.

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Many managers want to be more inclusive.  They recognize the value of inclusion and diversity and believe it’s the right thing to aspire to. But they don’t know how to get there.

For the most part, managers are not given the right tools to overcome the challenges posed by implicit biases. The workshops companies invest in typically teach them to constantly check their thoughts for bias. But this demands a lot of cognitive energy, so over time, managers go back to their old habits.

Based on our work at the Stanford Women’s Leadership Lab, helping organizations across many industries become more diverse and inclusive, our research shows there are two, small — but more powerful — ways managers can block bias: First, by closely examining and broadening their definitions of success, and second, by asking what each person adds to their teams, what we call their “additive contribution.”

The problem is that, when hiring, evaluating, or promoting employees, we often measure people against our implicit assumptions of what talent looks like — our hidden “template of success.”  These templates potentially favor one group over others, even if members of each group were equally likely to be successful.

Take, for example, the hiring process. While interviewing a candidate, we might ask her where she went to school or to share her experiences. We genuinely believe we are gathering relevant information that will help us decide objectively whether the person is a good fit for the job. But, in fact, we are likely measuring that person against our hidden “template.” Did the person go to the “right” school? Are her experiences similar to ours?  Is her personality a close match with that of the other employees on the team?

Not surprisingly, most managers end up hiring people who match their implicit template of success. Now, this approach may seem like a recipe for sound decision-making. Wouldn’t those people work best with the hiring manager and fit in with the rest of the team? Perhaps.

But this approach can pose a serious problem: Even if we want to be inclusive, the template itself may inadvertently invite bias by giving preference to more traditional candidates or “the safe bet.” In finance, for example, that might mean believing — based on no evidence — that only MBA graduates from an elite university are likely to succeed at their jobs. Even if we apply that criteria fairly to every candidate, it can lead to an implicit preference for hiring white males. After all, 60 to 70% of graduates of elite MBA programs are male — and very few are people of color.

Take another example: In positions that demand skills for working in an open-source context, our hidden template of success might lead us to believe, again with no evidence, that only someone who is already part of the open-source community can do the job well. This narrow definition, however, will result in the same kind of candidate being picked over and over. Those who volunteer in the open-source community often do so outside and beyond their paid “day” job hours, which pretty much excludes people with care-giving roles and other responsibilities outside of work. As a result, open-source communities are typically 3 to 5% women and mostly younger men. You can see how replicating the template of success can quickly translate into sameness.  And sameness blocks performance and innovation.

Diversity, on the other hand, spurs innovation. In research spanning decades, Columbia professor Katherine Phillips has repeatedly found that, when tasked to innovate, teams that include diverse members and that value the contributions of all their members outperform homogenous teams. When working across difference, Phillips finds that team members work harder. They have to in order to communicate and to reach consensus with others who may not share the same experiences or perspectives. This makes all members of the team think more deeply and arrive at better decisions. Diversity, as Phillips writes, “makes us smarter.”

The Power of Additive Contribution

To block our implicit biases, we need to challenge the assumptions behind our templates for success. We need to ask if the criteria used to evaluate candidates will lead us to choose employees who will add to our team success or simply replicate the status quo. For example, is an MBA from a top business school really necessary to be successful in this position? It may be, or maybe we’re privileging some criteria without evidence that they are necessary for success. We need to ask questions that help us determine how a person adds to the portfolio of experiences and skills across our entire team.

Focusing on additive contribution, a term we developed in a collaboration with Alix Hughes, diversity program leader at Amazon, is a powerful way to avoid sameness in a team and to foster inclusion and innovation. When we consider other’s additive contributions, we open the door to people who might not traditionally match our implicit template of success, that are not like “us.” We make our teams more diverse and more successful.

So how can you ask questions that help you determine someone’s additive contribution?  Here are four ways:

Clarify ambiguous criteria for success. First ask, “What are my hidden ‘preferences?’” Then challenge your hidden preferences by asking what are the mindsets, skills, and diverse experiences that actually lead your team to success. This may make you more effective at hiring people who will thrive in your organization. Instead of asking about prior open-source experience, for example, you might seek someone who can discuss critical points effectively and respectfully in an environment of open debate.

Focus on a person’s value to your team. Ask, “How does this person’s approach help us get to better discussions and decisions?” or “Does this person help me see outside my ‘box’?” Professor Mary Murphy, an expert on growth mindsets in organizations, offered this question: “How can [or does] this person add to the total value (composition) of our team?” By asking questions like these, you are more likely to move beyond your hidden template of success and avoid any implicit bias that might come along with it.

Run a gap analysis. Ask, “What skills and experiences am I missing on my team that this person has?” Be careful not to focus on one-dimensional characteristics. For example, don’t determine you need “a woman to round out the team.” Diversity for diversity’s sake often leads others to make negative assumptions about your people decisions — and about those you hire or promote. Criteria still matter. Instead, look at how people can add to the total portfolio of mindsets, skills, and experiences on the team.

Consider their journey. Ask, “What has this person learned from her experiences? Can she take risks and persevere through difficulties?” We often perceive being quickly promoted as an indicator of someone’s talent. But using this criteria might lead you to overlook the value of grit and perseverance. If a person took a risk and it did not pay off, for example, they may have learned more than a person who took a safer path. The lessons people learn throughout their careers are often the key to uncovering their additive contribution.

Small Wins, Big Payoff

In 2016 Anton Hanebrink, Intuit’s Chief Corporate Strategy and Development Officer, took over a high-performing team known for its contributions to the direction of the company. The team’s historical approach to finding top talent had been simple — target graduates of top universities and MBA programs with experience at leading management consulting firms or investment banks. While these filters simplified the screening process, they also led to a relatively homogenous way of viewing the world.

Seeking to find a better way he pushed his team to broaden how they thought about top talent. The breakthrough for Anton and his team came during an offsite we facilitated for the company on implicit biases in criteria, such as only hiring people from elite universities. The company’s CFO asked a crowd of the company’s most accomplished finance leaders to raise their hand if they had attended an Ivy League school. Hardly anyone raised their hand.

Seizing on the moment, Anton pushed his team to examine this historical criterion more closely. His team discovered it was not an effective marker of how well the person would perform in the organization. It was, indeed, just a hidden preference. In reality, many of the top performers at Intuit, including the CEO and CFO, did not hold degrees from an Ivy League school.

Energized by Anton’s charge, the team worked together to define the skills, experiences, and mindsets that actually were necessary to succeed in the team. They identified the abilities to structure ambiguous problems, influence change at senior levels, and to effectively develop team members as the key contributions an incoming executive should add to the team. None of these abilities would be guaranteed by a credential earned sometimes decades ago.

After reconsidering their template of success, the team’s approach to hiring changed significantly. They especially improved how they interviewed candidates, engaging them more deeply and thoughtfully on the core skills of the job than they had in the past. They even went so far as redact the names of schools and prior employers during the interview process.

As a result, the team hired top talent whose diverse backgrounds have added to their total portfolio of skills. Anton’s team achieved more gender and racial diversity as well. By redefining success, a greater diversity of people were able to be seen for their leadership. The breadth of talent has led to a more rigorous debate of ideas and enabled the team to navigate new business opportunities and identify critical strategic insights they would have missed with their old approach to recruiting talent.

That’s the power of reexamining our assumptions and considering people’s additive contributions. They constitute small changes on our part, but the payoff is significant.