May 18, 2021
There is a great deal of interest today in our society on the topics of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. While it has received added impetus from the “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” movements; we believe these concerns are part of an evolving zeitgeist. We are coming to an era of heightened concern for social justice and equality.
However, there is an elephant in the room that needs to be acknowledged. It is unconscious bias.
It is rare to find a person who down deep does not on some occasion view those who are dramatically different from themselves with some degree of wariness or caution. Those differences could be the other person’s country of origin, skin color, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, language, profession, physical size, or political views. By its very definition, “unconscious bias” is something about which we are not fully aware. And if we know we possess such bias, we often do our best to hide it.
Even though an individual themself is only dimly aware of their unconscious bias surrounding diversity, inclusion, and belonging, others frequently notice it. However, others seldom express their reactions unless they agree with the bias. They understand that telling another person about their bias could quickly evolve into a very uncomfortable conversation. Many have sat at a dinner table with a relative or friend where something clearly biased is said, and the only reaction comes later after the dinner when like-minded individuals compare reactions to what was said.
Despite centuries of preaching about loving one another, no one seems to have found a way to eliminate this unconscious bias that resides in most of us.
As of this moment, we know of nothing that totally eradicates it. Education helps. Travel and interaction with others minimize it. Leaders who set good examples of inclusion and acceptance of others can mitigate it. For the time being, however, the best bet seems to be managing this unconscious bias more deliberately. We submit that 360-degree feedback is the most promising tool for impacting unconscious bias with diversity, inclusion, and belonging in a positive way.
1. Multiple raters eliminate bias. It has been argued that the assessment of one person’s behavior by someone else is inherently full of error. This supports the statement of the Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza who in 1670 famously said, “What Paul says about Peter tells us more about Paul than about Peter.”
When one person evaluates another person, it is correct to observe that there is noise or bias in that evaluation process. If one person performs the assessment, the conclusions are totally the perceptions of that one rater. Mount, Scullen and Goff, scholars who have studied this phenomenon, describe two sources of error. First is the raters’ overall perception of the individual (“do I think she’s really competent or just average”) and the second is the tendency for the rater to be generally lenient or stringent in rating others (she is a tough grader). These researchers concluded that those elements together make up 54% of the total rater bias.* When only one person rates another, “62% of the variance in the ratings could be accounted for by the individual raters’ peculiarities of perception,” and only 21% of the actual performance of the individual being rated shows up in the actual rating.
Then Mount and Scullen wrote: “The advantages of using multiple raters are readily apparent. For each perspective, the use of two raters increases the amount of ratee performance captured by the ratings by about 50%. For example, the amount of performance variance that is captured using two boss ratings increases from 31 to 45%.” They go on to state “When two boss, two peer, and two subordinate ratings are used together the effects are even more pronounced. The amount of ratee performance variance accounted for by the six ratings increases to 68%.”
In layman’s language, they are saying that while one person’s observations have an error in them when you combine the observations of just six people, the error is diminished. Now the perceptions of the behavior of the person being observed are more than 2/3rds accurate.
In our own firm, we encourage the person being assessed to seek feedback from at least 13 raters. Among those 13 there is almost certain to be a spectrum of personal unconscious biases, but each one gets canceled out by the collection of the others.
For centuries, legal systems around the world have relied on juries comprised of roughly a dozen people. Why? Because while one person may have a bias toward the defendant or the defendant’s behavior on some specific issue, this bias is diluted by the others.
2. Common assumptions about bias have been shown to be incorrect. For example, many would assume that when men assess the leadership effectiveness of their colleagues at work, that they would be more generous toward other men than they would be toward women. The fact of the matter is our analysis of nearly 1.5 million assessments describing the behavior of over 150,000 leaders shows that assumption to be flat-out wrong. Male colleagues’ ratings of a female leader are not lower than the ratings of female colleagues of that same leader. Furthermore, overall women receive higher ratings than males on 13 of the 19 capabilities that we measure; even though there were roughly twice as many male raters.
3. Change starts with awareness. The fundamental purpose of 360-degree feedback is to give the recipient heightened self-awareness. While no one that we know argues that the 360-degree process is perfect, we submit that it is the most accurate, effective, and economical way we know to give a person an objective view of how they are perceived by others. Its power comes from giving a constructive dose of uplifting information and disconfirming information about one’s behavior.
For example, We assessed 1,825 senior leaders on their effectiveness at valuing diversity. Assessments were completed by the manager themselves and their direct reports that knew the managers well. Leaders who were rated in the bottom quartile by their direct reports on valuing diversity rated themselves at the 42nd percentile. Clearly, the managers were not aware of their behavior that conveyed their valuing diversity and inclusion. The starting point for change is helping others understand their self-perception is incorrect.
4. The objectives undergirding social justice are to have individuals in the organization show increasing concerns for:
5. People can change and improve. Looking at data from over 4,000 leaders comparing their pre-test 360 results to post-test results we discovered that 85% of the leaders were able to make a significant positive improvement on one or more competency.
These objectives are not likely to be achieved by threats, guilt, or a campaign of slogans. This is driven by the attitudes of employees who are likely modeling the example of their leaders. These are noble objectives that will be more likely to occur when the appeal is to the better angels that operate within each of us.
Some have worried that because assessments may contain an element of unconscious bias, that all assessments are inappropriate in this period of striving for greater social justice. We have argued and presented evidence for precisely the opposite.
It is precisely the practice of gaining insight from multiple perspectives that help individuals see the world in a different way.
Multi-rater or 360-degree feedback can give leaders the self-awareness to combat the unconscious bias that swirls about us.
– Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman
*Scullen, S. E., Mount, M. K., & Goff, M. (2000). Understanding the latent structure of job performance ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85,956–970.
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