2020 has been an unprecedented year – of a pandemic induced unexpected crisis, of challenges of a new scale and of disruptions of a higher order. But it has also been a year of reflections, introspections and learnings for those who decided to turn the crisis on its head to look at the latent possibilities! Caught amidst this rigmarole is basic human psyche, trying to absorb the existential realities of the new normal. In the corporate set-up, this translates to the quest of an employee to demonstrate agility and emotional intelligence to adapt to the new conditions. So, what has happened to workplaces' biases in this dynamic and evolving situation? Has de-biasing occurred organically with people (men/women/LGBTQ+, leaders, managers and freelancers et.al) porting their work to virtual environments, universally? Or have biases taken new avatars for the digital world? This article is an observation led commentary on virtual workplace biases, in the new normal.
Biases are defined as skewed inclination towards or against somebody or something, that is most often a function of past experiences. Conditioning and personal interactions play a critical role in formulation of biases and very often, these biases merge into the unconscious of a human brain. Sociological research has established the existence of common workplace biases like halo bias (defining an individual for dominant positive traits), affinity bias (gravitating naturally to people of similar backgrounds), status quo bias (refusal to change from established processes and protocols). De-biasing or bias busting occurs when individuals become aware of the existence of biases, understand their bias triggers and consciously avert biases through objective thinking. While the pandemic induced crisis and subsequent operations out of virtual silos has triggered greater attention to one’s own attitudes, what we observe is a swell in certain workplace biases that can hinder inclusive spirit. Here we list a few manifestations of workplace biases as identified by our observatory research.
Bias 1: Halo bias
Most of us end up admiring that top performer of the year, for his/her out performance and his/her ability to consistently exceed targets. But what we often fail to look deeper into are other attitudinal facets of this individual. Has he/she been a great team player? How good is he/she at sharing credit and showing appreciation? With work going virtual and many intangible, attitudinal performance metrics giving way to number based ones, we observe an exacerbation of the halo bias. When left unaddressed, this bias leads to undue stress and unhealthy competition in teams, detrimental to creating cohesive units where employees feel belonged. It is important that leaders are cognizant of such halo biases and ensure that while employees continue to pursue hard numbers and difficult goals, the yardsticks that measure employee performance also factors in positive attitude, team-spirit and co-worker sensitivity.
Bias 2: Affinity bias
So, we have all heard of the old boys’ club and how it impacts decision making at organizations. Leaders, when unaware of their biases, tend to attach more value to opinions from team-members with whom they share commonalities. Gravitating towards commonalities may be gender-led, educational background-led or age-led. Such biases come in the way of diversity of thoughts emerging in virtual meetings and discussions. Disruptive and innovative thoughts may end up getting parked and employees may not feel respected and valued. Disengagement and productivity loss are other consequences. While strategic measures like adding structure to every virtual meeting and greater transparency of meeting agendas can help, using AI-led technologies to detect frequency of occurrences of such behaviours can also help with the process of de-biasing.
Bias 3: Distance bias
The adage, out of sight, out of mind has never come to its true sense ever before than what it is today. Today, when more than 90% of the working population is operating remote, leaders are faced with a reality check to ensure the “Distance Bias” doesn’t creep into the workplaces. David Rock, the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global research organization focusing on cognitive research, says “Distance Bias is one of the five big categories of biases that drive our behaviour all the time.” So, what happens when an employee is working distantly, one tends to not pay as much attention to her/his ideas, leaving the employee feeling not valued and less belonged to the organization. In a recently concluded survey by Avtar, we found that early career professionals are hassled by remote connectivity issues as against the middle and senior level career professionals. This set of talent pool is more likely to face the brunt of “Distance Bias” at virtual workplaces. Drawing out guidelines for virtual meetings, inclusive leadership messaging to engage the diverse talent pool will build a collective synergy and help organizations tide over this phase.
Bias 4: Status quo bias
Many of us don’t like any change in our everyday decision-making pattern and tend to perceive any change that is ushered in as a disruption. The situation thrusted upon us by Covid-19 has also offered us opportunities to change, grow and rise to the fullest of our potentials. When the world shifted to working from home, many of us resisted the change, while some of us smooth-sailed to the new normal. The general human tendency during times of crisis is to default to old habits and scientists reveal that the amygdala, the part of our brains that plays an important role in our emotions and behaviour, also processes fear. During times of crisis, Status-quo bias often comes into being (amygdala works overtime) as a regret-minimizing strategy particularly with regard to making hiring decisions. Change is hard, but inevitable. Training interventions for middle- and senior-level managers to identify biases lurking in workplaces will help recognize and mitigate the risks beneath this inherent bias.
Elimination of biases is critical in navigating the crisis and economic recovery will be via elimination of biases. Leaders must be extremely mindful of not losing high potential talent and keep them engaged as the organization needs them to take it through the current crisis and shape the future success narrative. By addressing these four key biases that are now creeping to our virtual workplaces, futuristic and inclusive leaders can drive employee effectiveness, boost employee morale and steer ahead towards growth and success.