How can meeting planners be part of the solution in the movement to defeat unconscious bias? First, you need to know what it is.
Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age and so on. It differs from cognitive bias, which is a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the choices that would most likely reach our goals.
Cognitive biases impact all sorts of decisions, not simply the way we evaluate people. For example, as this study reveals, these biases harm our shopping choices as consumers. In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want. Despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns, these are two separate and distinct concepts.
Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains, while unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example—a geographic instead of one across time—most people in the United States don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.
It’s incumbent for meeting planners both to understand and to overcome unconscious bias. Doing so not only helps you create more inclusive events; it helps you run the business side of meeting planning most successfully.
The most important pair of cognitive biases for meeting planners in addressing unconscious bias are the halo effect and the horns effect. The halo effect refers to the fact that when we like one aspect of someone, we overestimate their other characteristics. Usually this liking stems from a similarity between us and the other person. Conversely, if we dislike one aspect of a person, frequently due to a difference between us and them, we’ll tend to underestimate all of their other characteristics.
Say you’re choosing a caterer. Did you know you’re more likely to select the one whose sales rep you perceive as more aesthetically pleasing even if the sales rep doesn’t do the catering itself? Research suggests you’ll unconsciously find reasons to talk yourself into selecting the person, even if they would not be the first choice by objective measures.
Or say you’re considering how much time and effort to invest into minimizing the prospect for microaggressions toward minority event attendees. Unless you’re a member of that minority, you’re likely to underestimate the impact of such discrimination on the minority attendees. Thus, you’ll misallocate your resources to the detriment of that minority.
Such unconscious bias by meeting planners, or by attendees who discriminate against minority attendees, is often unintentional—that’s why we call it unconscious bias. The discriminatory behavior results from unconscious, implicit thought processes that the meeting planner would not consciously endorse.
Fortunately, research shows that you can overcome these mental blind spots to make the best people decisions. One way to overcome cognitive biases involves using a decision aid, such as this website that narrows our choices to the top 10. An externally-vetted list by a trusted third party, such as a highly credible publication, will minimize the impact of your own unconscious biases.
Another strategy involves specifically focusing on observing differences and similarities between yourself and other people or groups. Notice whether the difference makes you feel more enthusiastic/optimistic/positive toward these people or more cautious/skeptical/negative toward them. Then, as you’re making choices about who to work with or how much resources to invest in each, deliberately lower your estimates of the former and raise your estimates of the latter. This skill gets much easier over time with practice and can help you learn about and address your own unconscious bias as a meeting planner.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized author, behavioral economist, cognitive neuroscientist and academic on a mission to instill leaders with the most effective decision-making strategies. He is the author of several books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), and has over 550 articles and 450 interviews in publications such as Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur and Fast Company. Contact him and register for his free Wise Decision Maker Course here.