While a common approach to educating leaders about the impacts of unconscious bias on decision-making is through face-to-face workshops, another increasingly effective approach is through what we call a ‘real time bias review’.
This is when we observe leadership teams in real time during performance review and succession planning discussions, helping them to identify when biases and stereotypes may be limiting decision-making and equitable career opportunities.
We do this in a constructive and respectful way to maximise the opportunity for reflection and peer learning, acknowledging we all hold biases so ingrained we hardly notice them – hence why they’re called implicit or unconscious.
We think it’s a particularly powerful way to learn - in the real moments that matter - and it’s working for many of our clients.
How does bias impact performance review and promotion?
Unless leaders are skilful in recognising and challenging unconscious bias, performance reviews and promotion assessments are often not as objective as we’d like to think. And while performance review processes are changing dramatically with the introduction of new technologies, many organisations still rely on assessments by leadership teams.
These assessments, in turn, determine pay and promotion, so it’s worth paying close attention to language and evidence.
Numerous studies have shown the impacts of unconscious gender bias on performance reviews. One recent study reported in Harvard Business Review of more than 80,000 evaluations in a military leadership setting found no gender differences in objective measures (such as fitness, grades) but that in subjective evaluations, managers used more positive words to describe men in performance reviews and more negative ones to describe women.
Other studies have found the word ‘abrasive’ is a common adjective reserved for women in performance reviews. That’s related to the double-bind that occurs when women emphasise their competence, leading them to be perceived as cold and unlikable.
On the other hand, when they’re perceived as warm, collaborative and communal, they’re less likely to be perceived as competent and therefore leadership potential. Stanford University academics found that women are also more likely to receive vague feedback not connected to objectives or business outcomes, which clearly impacts opportunities for their growth and promotion to leadership.
What’s more, women’s success in management positions is often attributed to luck or external factors, according to business psychologists Professor Binna Kandola and Jo Kandola, but men’s success will more likely to be attributed to their skill or personality. And people working flexibly are less likely to be viewed favourably.
What does a real-time bias review involve?
We emphasise the purpose is fair and objective decision-making, and our role is to support that goal.
We join leadership team meetings and note any gender and cultural biases that may emerge in the discussion, as well as more general cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and priming. Depending on the context, we’ll ask questions, challenge assumptions respectfully during the meeting, and/or provide feedback after the group conversation on a 1-on-1 basis.
In one organisation where we recently joined the leadership team in assessing performance, the impacts were obvious - ratings improved for a leader working flexibly and a number of other changes occurred as a result of the new depth of understanding and conversation. And it was not just gender bias highlighted, but other types of cognitive bias that can muddy business decisions.
Calling out gender bias is important because the feedback women receive clearly affects opportunities for promotion and gender balance at leadership levels. Researchers have found that if gender bias accounts for just five per cent of the difference in performance ratings, an organisation where 58 per cent of entry level positions are held by women will end up with only 29 per cent in leadership levels.
So, if you’re keen to ensure performance reviews are conducted fairly and objectively, we’d love to speak with you about how a real time review with an independent bias specialist can enhance and refine your existing processes. Please email us at email@example.com or call us on 1800 571 999.
 Source: Binna & Jo Kandola, The Invention of Difference: The story of gender bias at work, Pearn Kandola, 2013