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Why Some Companies Are Installing Bias Monitors

We’ve been discussing the “virus of bias” in recent blogs, exploring how it can lead individuals and groups to become “brain blind” to certain people’s talents and abilities. This same phenomenon can lead us to give preferential access and opportunities to those with whom we’re more comfortable while being blind to their shortcomings. One strategy some organizations employ to deal with the counterproductive effects of bias in their workplace is to install Bias Monitors.

Sounds like some sort of Orwellian, high-tech, snooping device, right?

Actually, it’s a very above-board, low-tech approach used by a growing number of companies. It requires no wiretapping, cameras or secret listening devices. Here’s how it works.

The designation “Bias Monitor” is a term originally invented by one our clients for a rotating role shared by a designated person attending an important meeting where key decisions are being made. Whoever assumes this role for the meeting is to be on the look-out for biases that may sneak into the group’s thinking or conversations. This approach is especially beneficial during strategic meetings for navigating complex decisions or whenever hiring, promotions or terminations are imminent. The Bias Monitor becomes the “canary in the coal mine,” providing a verbal warning whenever biases show up that could limit the group’s thinking and otherwise erode their thriving environment.

Of course, biases do show up because, as we’ve been careful to indicate in past articles, biases are the brain’s way of creating shortcuts in an attempt to make our thinking more efficient. While some of these shortcuts are useful (like our ability to filter out unnecessary distractions from our work environment) others are very counterproductive (like the common social bias that characterizes a man’s assertiveness as a leadership trait, while considering the same behavior to be “aggressive” when demonstrated by a woman).

And that’s where the Bias Monitor comes in. They call the group’s attention to such moments, when the virus of bias has infected the group. And because the role of Bias Monitor is a rotating role, eventually shared by everyone, groups are finding that they are becoming increasingly more conscious of the biases that limit their own thinking or that can lead to unfair practices.

There’s an important caveat to note in terms of using a Bias Monitor effectively. Because biases often drive habitual behaviors, specific actions, and everyday decisions, installing a bias monitor in meetings requires for those in attendance to be willing to receive productive feedback, to own their biases (realizing that we’re all vulnerable to the virus of bias), and to be truly interested in expanding their thinking beyond such limiting beliefs.

Taking such steps within a team or an entire organization is a wonderful demonstration of responsible leadership. Doing so sends a powerful message that a company or group is committed to creating a working environment where biases—ours and those of others—can be openly questioned, set aside or changed, in favor of a more productive reality. And, as we’ve mentioned, such an approach also improves our own monitoring skills, so that we become more tuned in to our own thinking patterns and unconscious assumptions.

Being able to detect biases early, before they go viral, is a vital skill that any of us can develop. Innovations like the Bias Monitor is one way to enable us to more easily make the vital transition from a surviving culture to one that truly thrives.

We like to conclude these posts with a Thriving tip drawn from our book:

“When you become consciously aware of your own vulnerability to biases

and invite others to let you know if they think your actions may be based on a bias

you are leading the way in developing a thriving organization.”

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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