In 2014, Youtube launched a video upload feature for their app, wherein 5-10% of the videos were uploaded upside-down. The developers couldn’t figure out why so many people were getting it wrong. They then realised that they had inadvertently designed the app for right-handed users. They failed to consider that there would be left-handed users as well and that phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in a user’s left hand. This was a case of unconscious bias.
Biases have always been a part of the human psyche. But a lot of our biases are unconscious. Not only are we unaware of these, but it also takes us a hard time to accept them. These create a lot of issues, especially in the workplace. In this article, we explore research and instances where unconscious bias can impact feedback and promotions.
Feedback is critical to every member of an organisation. It could be informal or formal. Constructive feedback allows people to have the space to learn, unlearn and grow. It lets people introspect and work on themselves. Feedback generally takes place in two ways: by mentors and by peers. Research showed that 61 % of a rating is based on the judgments of the rater rather than the ratee.
It has been observed that women and other minority groups often do not have equal access to networks and informal mentoring relationships that can help their careers. Affinity bias is most observed when it comes to feedback by mentors. Since a majority of high positions are occupied by men and people from the majority group, they see themselves in mentees similar to them, thus, letting affinity bias kick in. Thinking “how similar the mentee is to themselves, and so, how much potential they probably will have” leads to mentors ignoring people who might actually have more potential.
There is some feedback that is better received if it comes from peers rather than seniors. This is one of the reasons peer feedback is being implemented in workplaces. It allows people to figure out an effective way to utilise their skills and be productive as a team. But these feedbacks aren’t safe from unconscious biases either. Horn and Halo effect, along with recency effects could play an unfair part in these feedbacks. Horn effect (a negative first impression) or Halo effect (a positive first impression) more often than not find themselves in these feedbacks. If you thought your peer didn’t smile back at you and took that to mean they don’t like you, it is possible you would end up giving them negative feedback irrespective of how good they would be at their work.
Personality characteristics that don’t have a lot to do with a person’s performance or with their future abilities has been seen to affect feedback. For example, someone having a good sense of humour might make them more likeable but would have little to do with their actual work. But this doesn’t always stop people from giving a certain kind of feedback to people because of their inherent biases.
Bias has always existed when it comes to promotion and appraisals. Gender, race, caste, and a lot of other demographics have always played a role in these, however unconscious. This bias in judgment could often lead to inflation or deflation of employee ratings, which can have serious implications for the employee.
Getting promoted has rarely been a level field for men, women, and non-binary people. Interventions such as diversity training programs or de-biasing haven’t gotten tangible results. In fact, while women make up more than half of management and professional jobs within the U.S. workforce, they hold only 5 percent of CEO positions and fewer than 17 percent of board seats. Questions such as “Are you planning on getting married/starting a family?” or “How will you be able to manage your house and our work together?” have always been asked only to women when it comes to promotions. Since public opinions of work abilities are mostly governed by societally enforced gender roles, unconscious bias is an important contributing factor for this gender gap. Gender is not the only demographic that affects promotions. The biases visible in the feedback structures are also visible here.
Appraisals are often affected by the two major types of recency and negativity bias. Most people in charge of appraisals will not only focus on the most recent work that the employee has done but also the most negative outcomes. Giving undue importance to maybe a few instances of mistakes over multiple things gone right would lead to unconscious bias affecting the employees’ appraisal.
Unconscious bias in feedback and promotions challenges the leadership’s commitment to merit. It also impacts the aspirations and well-being of the individual on the receiving end. While it is possible to get rid of them, accepting and understanding them will always be the first step for the same.