What do you know about your colleagues?

24 Apr 2018 By Susanne Jacobs

Learning a little about the people you work with is an important shortcut to overcoming affinity bias, writes Susanne Jacobs

I recently worked with a senior executive team to explore the core elements for an inclusive culture. We examined the science behind why inclusion is so critical for human motivation, and tools to mitigate for exclusion. Some of these tools are really just small tweaks; tiny simple changes that deliver a positive effect that outweighs the effort. One of these tweaks is the power of hello and a name.

Can you think of a time when you were excluded? Maybe a thought that the whispered conversation may be about you, or that invitation to the party never arrived? Exclusion for the brain represents a significant threat. We are social animals and exclusion hurts. The pain we feel is real because it registers in the same location of the brain as physical pain. Conversely, inclusion is one of the core drivers for trust and intrinsic motivation in all aspects of our lives. At work, to feel included, heard and recognised leads to increased engagement. 

Unconscious bias plays a large part in how and why we include some and push others out. Affinity bias – the brain’s attraction to individuals that look, sound or act in ways that are familiar to us through means such as accent, education, colour and so on – is one culprit. The brain is a pattern-matching and predictive biological machine; when it can interpret events and others as familiar, it ticks the ‘safe’ box. 

If, on the other hand, differences are detected, the brain will signal concern, putting us on alert to check out the possible opposition. This process is extremely fast and is designed for our survival – but it is not always correct and can often be unhelpful. Importantly, our biases do not often represent our own values. We may consciously believe that we would never exclude another based on their outer appearance, but our survival mechanism can lead us to do so without the courtesy of letting us know that we have unconsciously overlooked a CV based only on the name. 

So how can we mitigate the effect of affinity bias? One answer is to get to know who is around you. Familiarity creates a ‘safe – okay to include’ file in the brain. What do you know about the colleagues you work with? Who are they outside work? What is important to them? 

Back to that senior executive team. One participant, as we explored this, said that many years ago as a junior manager he and his team were visited by one of the executive board leaders. He remembers introducing himself and talking about work and a little about his family. Two years later, this same board member visited again. The participant recalled that he remembers little of the reason for the visit but he will never forget that this senior leader came straight up to him, said hello, remembered his name and asked after his family. The impact of this small interaction outweighed everything and remains with him to this day. 

None of us are to blame for our unconscious bias, but we can take responsibility for the solution. Watch what happens with the power of hello, a name and learning a little about the people around you. 

Susanne Jacobs is founder of The Seven Consultancy and author ofDrivers

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