Is Unconscious Bias Stifling Your Creativity?

halvorson-300With International Women’s Day coming up this Sunday, we recently took a moment to speak with Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, Director of the Diversity & Bias Practice at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), about some of the continuing diversity challenges in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs of the world.

Beyond her work at NLI, Dr. Halvorson is a social psychologist, bestselling author, and the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School. During our conversation, we explored how the human brain’s unconscious biases influence team diversity and creativity in enterprise work settings, while also affecting the ongoing march toward gender equity and inclusion.

Q: How do you see unconscious bias affecting the hiring and team composition decisions that are made in workplaces today?

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson: It’s a great question, because one of the things that often happens when we talk about bias is that people automatically assume we’re only talking about issues like gender representation and racial representation. These are definitely part of it, but biases can also relate to a whole bunch of different things that can be detrimental to decision-making across the board within an organization.

It’s not just “people”-based decisions, either. It’s also about strategy, problem solving, and the kinds of products that you decide to offer or not to offer. All of those decisions can and are routinely affected by our psychosocial and neurological biases. So bias is really as relevant to innovation as it is to diversity and inclusion.

Q: How do our biases influence teamwork?

HGH: Well, diversity creates extremely robust teams. Teams that are homogeneous—which is what unconscious biases often produce—have been shown to consistently underperform compared to teams that are diverse. This is due to the fact that when everyone is similar, people start to get a little too relaxed and a little too comfortable. A strong sense of “group think” develops, where everyone agrees with each other and they cease to question each other’s assumptions. These homogeneous groups also routinely overestimate how well they’re doing. They feel like they’re “knockin’ it out of the park,” when in fact they’re consistently not.

By consciously adding diversity to a group we can see a team start to perform really well. This doesn’t have to be strictly along the lines of gender or race, you just need to make sure that everybody isn’t the same along a particular dimension. These teams also end up having a much more accurate sense of how well they’re actually doing.

Q: Why does mixing things up improve performance?

HGH: It happens because diversity creates a little bit of tension. People no longer take it for granted that everyone will agree with them, and they also don’t feel as if they just want to go along with what somebody is suggesting. They “wake up,” in effect. People become more critical of what’s being said and, because of that, they bring their own A-game. It’s not a case of importing diverse people into a group to gain the benefit of their unique knowledge; it’s about bringing them in to improve everyone’s performance.

Q: Are companies becoming aware of this?

HGH: There are a lot of companies that have a “type” of person who works there, and they’re kind of proud of it. This isn’t necessarily along race or gender lines, but there’s a certain kind of person that a company will employ. This can be dangerous, because even if that seems to be working well for your business, the fact is that without diversity, you’re not getting the best out of your people. Diversity, in this regard, is great for both productivity and innovation.

Q: What do you think about the common problem of women being underrepresented in tech companies?

HH: We have great data on this, and the science is clear. Companies with women on the board do better than companies without. You can now make a definitive business case that it’s a bad thing not to have women on boards, and that diverse companies make bigger profits on average than companies that aren’t diverse. There are loads of studies on this—we have the data and people are starting to get it!

Many companies have good intentions with regards to this, but unconscious biases are called “unconscious” for a reason. These things have to be consciously pointed out and dealt with before they can change.

To me, it’s continually meaningful to help to reveal biases, not only for the purposes of diversity and inclusion but across the board. Whether it’s a small Bay Area startup or a huge company like Adobe, we’re helping people learn to make better decisions for the benefit of everyone, backed by hard science. It’s an exciting time.