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What is unconscious bias, and why could it be killing my business?

What is unconscious bias, and why could it be killing my business?

Organisations put so much energy and resources into making sure they get their hiring processes right. And rightly so – we've already spoken about just how costly a bad hire can be.

In the new world of work, getting it right depends on how good you are at spotting the right fit, skills and mindset. But you might not realise is that your processes are actually hurting your chances of bringing the right people in.

How? Two words – unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

According to the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, there are two key areas of the brain:

System 1: the unconscious brain. It's fast, intuitive, emotional and it can't be switched off.

System 2: the conscious brain. It's slow, analytical, deliberate and logical.

Kahneman's theory says that System 1 makes suggestions to System 2. Fine for the most part, except that too often, System 2 simply accepts these suggestions – it doesn't challenge what System 1 is basing this all on.

His argument is that we're all programmed this way so that our brain has to do as little work as possible – rather than spend ages looking at all the data, our brain would prefer to just skip to a quick conclusion.

Why does this matter when it comes to hiring?

Well basically, this means that as humans, we think we're a lot more expert than we actually are. And because of that, judgement can be fallible.

The brain is efficient when we're experienced at something and the judgements we're making are similar to what we've experienced many times before.

It's a bit like a maths sum. All those years are primary school doing your times-tables taught you that 4 x 4 = 16. You don't need a calculator to figure it out, it's just automatic.

Now that's all well and good in an exact science like basic maths where formulas hold true. But what about when it comes to making decisions about people?

People don't fit a formula

When we make decisions on people (e.g. recruitment) we usually use System 1, our intuitive brain.

We look at someone and observe something like "you dress like me, you went to a similar university and you seem to think like I do."

So from here, you're likely to jump to the conclusion that they're a great fit for the role and your organisation in general.

In recruitment, this is a serious problem

In hiring, you simply cannot rely on intuition alone. Every new appointment is a brand new experience to the brain, and it should be treated that way.

Is there a solution?

Yes, there is – psychometric testing and assessment.

Psychometrics effectively removes the distraction of things that fundamentally have no ability to predict job performance – things like someone's appearance, their socioeconomic background or where they grew up.

In doing so, these tools leave us with data on how a person thinks, how they behave and how they're likely to act in a given situation – the factors that predict how a person will perform in their job.

Our intuitive brain will inevitably feature in recruitment – you're not going to continue with a candidate if your intuitive brain screams that they're not right for the role.

But what psychometrics do is give your conscious brain some hard data to counter those reflexes – it forces your System 1 brain to work that bit harder and to make logical decisions.

Ultimately, it ensures your decisions are made with both sides of the brain. And the result? You get a more-informed decision as a result.

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