How to overcome personal biases in a diverse workplace?

“Catherine, as you are French, we hope that you will appreciate this bottle of wine from the Netherlands.” You read correctly: The Netherlands. You might not expect winery in Northern Europe, assuming that grape needs sunny and warm conditions. You will be mistaken. Such as my Dutch clients who thought that being French, I drink wine, which I do not. More than often, we are quick to jump to conclusions. Often harmless, such unconscious shortcuts can produce damaging effects in a diverse workplace. Can we really avoid them?

Heuristics and Biases

Those mental shortcuts have been famously identified and labeled as heuristics by Kahneman and Tversky in the 70s. The amount of information daily proceed force us to select the most relevant characteristics of an object of a person to produce decision and judgment. As Gigerenzer argued in the 90′ heuristics are part of our evolutionary path and are most of the time accurate. Meanwhile, when irrelevant aspects are preferred to relevant ones, the reasoning suffers from bias. A quick search on your favorite browser will provide you with hundreds of lists of biases. Let’s focus on the ones that pollute culturally diverse settings.

Common biases in a culturally diverse workplace

. The Halo effect: Ida’s excellent pronunciation and prosody in French lead her French colleagues to forget that she can misunderstand their implicit communication style. Here, a positive competence or trait confers positive opinions about other competencies or characteristics. 

. The Horn effect: Contrary to Ida, Fabrizio speaks English with a strong Italian accent. During meetings, he noticed that colleagues who seem more fluent were also more convincing. To Fabrizio’s disadvantage, his accent is mistakenly overshadowing other competencies. 

. The Affinity bias: Have you ever experienced coffee breaks with tables organized around a language or nationality? Show your credentials before entering the circle!

While the language is noticeable, many other communication skills stay under the radar and are even more susceptible to be biased. 

. The Conformity bias:  Consider Sue’s testimony: “Chinese are supposed to be very polite. I want to be more assertive. But I know that it doesn’t match my colleagues’ expectations. So, I shy away.”

. The Confirmation bias: In a global company, Jens’s emails are so direct that some colleagues complained to their manager. The latter answered: “He doesn’t mean to hurt. He is a Nordic guy.” 

Unfortunately, biases and stereotypes (which are systematically negative heuristics towards a social group) are prone to freeze opinions, unease accommodations, and make trade-offs unreachable. Add some work overload, a bit of competition, soon a conflict is likely to emerge in such a team. 

How to inhibit biases?

For Kahneman (2011), the powerful System 1, our intuitive, perceptual, highly biased reasoning process, takes over the logical System 2. In other words, biases win. Luckily, optimism is not forbidden. O.Houdé and his team from René Descartes University demonstrate through functional imaging that it is possible to inhibit System 1. How?

First of all, as an individual, bear in mind that your judgments and decision are biased and subject to a more precise and mindful consideration. As soon as the rule of thumb or any other heuristics tempts you, activate the emergency constancy plan and reconsider. “Chinese people are polite and quiet.” Stop. Emergency plan. Reconsideration. “Sue, please, would you like to share your viewpoint with us? Is there any blindspot that we miss here?”

From a broader perspective, cultivate curiosity by any means. They are plentiful to choose from:

  • Literature develops empathy,
  • Modern art fosters to look from various perspectives,
  • Reading a newspaper with another political stand than your favorite one allows you to consider different opinions, 
  • Following someone on social media whose statements at best surprise you, at worst infuriate you, confronts you with uncomfortable points of view, and offers you time to imagine paused answers.

“Everyone is unique as an individual, not as a representative of the social category.”

Meir Selma, Rotterdam School of Management

As a manager, have a conversation with your team: what makes us diverse? According to Meir Selma, from Rotterdam School of Management, managing diversity demands highlighting differences and avoiding category. Selma emphasizes that “Everyone is unique as an individual, not as a representative of the social category.”

Jens’s manager might have considered such an answer: “OK, I hear that Jens’s emails sound a bit rude to you. It’s not the first time I hear frustration around emails. Please send me one or two concrete examples by Tuesday. On my side, I will collect some emails that could work as models. During our next weekly meeting, we will discuss emails, whether within the team or commercial emails. What are our preferences, and how, as a team, we make them effective and friendly? Sounds good, by you?”

Overcoming our personal biases or Pascal’s « puissances trompeuses » demands some effort. Meanwhile, they are paid in return as they broaden our mindset, enable inclusion, and, consequently, are at the benefit of creativity and agility. Which other techniques have you already experienced that mitigate personal bias in a diverse workplace? Please comment below. Even better, let’s meet and talk around a glass or cup of our respectively favorite beverage.



D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011


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