The business case for diversity and inclusion has won almost universal acceptance. Yet even the most well-intentioned companies often hit a wall when it comes to achieving diversity and inclusion in practice. Why? A large part of the answer lies in the cognitive biases that prevent us from accurately interpreting the behavior, character, motives, and worth of people who differ from us.
Difference can take many forms. It can include the familiar categories of race, gender, and nationality – or any characteristic that the dominant group in a particular context might consider “other.” In an engineering culture, the “other” might be people from a customer-centric background. In yet another organization, the diversity problem might be a dearth of people with a genuinely international outlook.
But whoever the “other” might be in a particular organization, the fact is that in interpreting other people’s actions, we human beings almost invariably make the same mistakes of interpretation. We overestimate the importance of fundamental character traits as a cause of a behavior. We underestimate the context and situation. Someone studying diligently for an exam attributes her hard work to the situation. An observer sees her as “hard-working.” Social psychologists call such mistakes “fundamental attribution error” or “actor-observer bias.”
By any name, this deeply ingrained habit of thought can be highly destructive – especially when it involves people the observer regards as “other.” If someone else fails to complete a task, we are likely to attribute it to a character flaw like laziness, rather than to extenuating circumstances. Conversely, if we fail to complete a task, we tend to attribute the cause to the situation. When such judgments are generalized to cover all of the members of an out-group, the result is “ultimate attribution error,” or what is commonly called stereotyping.
These habitual cognitive biases and errors can wreak havoc with an organization’s ability to create a welcoming environment for people whose backgrounds and perspectives differ from the majority. If a member of the minority – defined in terms of the relevant difference from the majority – succeeds in an effort, the majority group might attribute such success to external circumstances. It was a good economy or a lucky break. If the minority member fails at a task, the failure is often attributed to some fundamental deficiency of character or ability. Worse, members of the majority may expect any member of that minority to have certain characteristics, despite the fact that the majority member has no information about the individual being judged.
These biases lead, in turn, to in-group bias. This can be a tendency to give preferential treatment to others perceived to be members of the in-group. Or it can result in formal and informal groups that might exclude members who represent differences. The dangers of this are painfully obvious on the front lines of diversity: recruiting, retention, promotion, and succession planning.
Eventually, an organization can be permeated by what Mary T. Rowe, who has been studying the phenomenon for 30 years, calls “microinequities.” They are the seemingly small slights, subtle insensitivities, and little daily acts of often unconscious exclusion. Cumulatively, they can demoralize and often derail out-group employees. A condescending tone, a name repeatedly mispronounced, implicit signs of low expectations for the other person’s performance – any and all of these can send negative signals and create an inhospitable atmosphere. Those on the receiving end may eventually find it intolerable and leave the company.
What all of these errors and inequities add up to is a failure to capitalize on the business promise of diversity. Because they are so deeply rooted in human cognition they are difficult to see and even more difficult to address. Who, after all, wants to admit to bias of any kind? And how can we even recognize it since it is so deeply ingrained in thought processes we experience as entirely rational and irreproachable?
This is the great unspoken in too many approaches to diversity. By passing over in silence the real roots of the challenge, we minimize its difficulty. Not surprisingly, the result is often sub-optimal diversity and inclusion. It demoralizes employees and produces disappointing business results that undermine the organization’s commitment to diversity for the future. Until the reality of fundamental attribution error is acknowledged and addressed, the benefits of diversity and inclusion will remain elusive.
Co-authored by Michel Deschapelles, formerly with Egon Zehnder (2007-2014).