Training consultant Jasmine Gartner Consulting
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How HR as the ‘critical friend’ can combat unconscious bias

The job of leaders is to prepare for the future, but what if unconscious bias limits their view? How can HR enable people to think beyond the current paradigms and be more strategic in their decision making? Playing the ‘critical friend’ could be the answer.

9th Apr 2020
Training consultant Jasmine Gartner Consulting
Columnist
Share this content
Crossroad signpost saying this way, that way, the other way concept for lost, confusion or decisions
iStock/BrianAJackson

Imagine the job of senior leaders in the best of times: their job is to make decisions about the future, which – because it hasn’t happened yet – is by definition imaginary. Their role is to create a strategic narrative that tells employees where the company was in the past that’s led to where it is in the present; where we’d like to be in the future, and how we’re going to get there.

It’s remarkably hard for us to shift paradigms and imagine something entirely new beyond the constraints of our current paradigm – so cars were once called ‘horseless carriages’ and internet platforms were ‘bulletin boards’ at first.

Despite this, even in the best of times, there is so much going against their predicting the future correctly. Their own brains work against them – for example:

  • We rely on the availability heuristic, which uses the things that are easiest to remember as rules of thumb about what might happen in the future (for example, after 9/11, people took to the roads in record numbers to avoid flying and terrorists, even though car accidents are statistically much more risky).
  • People tend to have a present bias, where we find it difficult to think about the future. This is why, when given the choice of opting in to pensions, there’s a lower take up rate among employees than when they’re asked instead to opt out of signing up for a pension.

Then there are people’s individual dispositions:

Of course, in the real world, our dispositions fall somewhere in the grey area between those extremes, and usually depend on context.

Future of work

The bigger picture

On a societal level, too, we face obstacles:

  • It’s remarkably hard for us to shift paradigms and imagine something entirely new beyond the constraints of our current paradigm – so cars were once called ‘horseless carriages’ and internet platforms were ‘bulletin boards’ at first.
  • This (understandable) inability to see beyond what we know contributes to our weakness for confirmation bias – generally, people look for proof of what they already think, rather than trying to prove their ideas through refuting them.
  • We often cannot believe the Cassandras, until it’s too late

As senior leaders make those decisions, if they aren’t communicated well, you can add another challenge to the list: how employees view those decisions:

  • They often assume decision-making is poorly thought through – if they’re thought through at all!
  • They will be at different places along the change curve from their senior leaders, which results in employees thinking their leaders are uncaring psychopaths, and senior leaders wondering why employees can’t get on board with a change that has to happen.

This is all in the best of times. I’m not going to talk about the worst of times – epidemics, wars, anomie (state collapse). Let’s talk, however, about the real world – that grey area between extremes.

Imagine the reality of this grey area – all of the challenges and obstacles, the constant stream of new information that leaders have to contend with as they make their decisions about that imaginary future.

The value of critical thinking

How can HR help? I am a big fan of the idea of HR as a critical friend. It’s important to challenge senior leaders when any of the obstacles listed above threaten to trip up their ability to make the best possible decisions. Ask them about what happens if they don’t change, if everything stays the same? Ask them if they’ve tried to refute their ideas, and what they’ve come up with. Challenge their rules of thumb – are they relying on an incorrect heuristic? By doing so, you’ll contribute to vastly improved decision-making.

In HR, you’re also in a position to help engage employees. When I’m delivering training for employee reps about change, I try to help them understand how management are thinking, with a few practical tips. To help shape their understanding of decision-making, I share with them that:

  1. No senior leader ever goes into a room thinking, ‘how can I make all of my employees very unhappy today?’
  2. Senior leaders are making decisions with the information they have at their fingertips today about an imaginary future. It only takes one small change to up-end that decision. What employees see as firefighting is sometimes just necessary adaptation to a constantly changing landscape. 

If you’re interested in learning more about unconscious bias and systemic inequality (and how you can challenge it), I have a very short book on the topic, and an online course.

Interested in this topic? Read How unconscious bias means that we get in our own way.

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