Breaking Bias: A Conversation with Josh Davis of the Neuroleadership Institute

At this year’s Workday Rising customer conference in Chicago, one of the most thought-provoking sessions featured Dr. Josh Davis, who specializes in helping businesses harness neuroscience research in his role as research director and lead professor at the Neuroleadership Institute. We sat down with Davis to discuss the business value of a diverse workforce, the impact of unconscious biases on our decisions, and what organizations and individuals can do to improve decision-making.

Can you recap why businesses should care about fostering workforce diversity and inclusion?   

There’s pretty consistent evidence from industry, as well as from psychological and neuroscience research, that diversity tends to make companies more profitable. Diverse teams are more creative, accurate, and intelligent. So the simple business reason is that diverse teams drive better outcomes.

What is it about diverse teams that helps them perform better?

The effort of being in a diverse team makes us concentrate and think differently. The discomfort we feel when we’re interacting with someone who has different beliefs or a different background is really useful—it helps us dig deeper and gather more information, which in turn leads to better decisions. These benefits come from team members having different perspectives, which is not the same as simply being on opposite sides of an issue.

What’s really interesting is that in many ways this is counterintuitive. That discomfort people experience leads them to think that the work done by diverse teams is less accurate. Research shows that compared to diverse teams, homogenous teams think they’re more effective and more accurate, and they have greater confidence in their decisions. But the opposite is true.

At the Neuroleadership Institute, you speak about different kinds of bias and the brain science behind those biases. Can you briefly explain what exactly bias is?

The word bias has a bit of a bad rap. Bias doesn’t mean prejudice—prejudice is a conscious, deliberate decision to believe something. Bias can be thought of as leaning one way or another, based on our experience or something deeper. Biases help us get through our day without having to gather every bit of information for every decision we have to make. In fact, the more expert we are at something, the more we can rely on our biases.

The biases that we need to be concerned with are unconscious biases. From a neuroscience point of view, our brains have stronger associations towards certain things than others. For example, similarity bias makes us think that “people like me are better than others,” and distance bias has people believing that “closer things are better than ones that are distant.” Scientists have identified over 150 different types of biases. These unconscious or cognitive biases come into play in certain kinds of decisions and lead to outcomes that we aren’t happy with.

“We can’t get rid of these biases, but we can mitigate the impact they have on our decision-making.”

In your talk, you shared the idea that simply being aware of an unconscious bias doesn’t get rid of it. Why not?

Simply put, you can’t just take an unconscious thing and make it a conscious thing. As we like to say at the Institute, if you have a brain, you’re biased. It’s not possible to be aware of unconscious processes in the moment when the decision is being made. It’s a different way of processing things in your brain. People have known about these kinds of biases for a long time, and awareness of them hasn’t led to better decision-making. Awareness and education only go so far.

Where awareness can be helpful is in knowing the ways you’ve been biased in the past, and the ways that you might do that again in the future.

How do we guard against unconscious bias in our decision-making?

We can’t get rid of these biases, but we can mitigate the impact they have on our decision-making. We can do this by preparing, in advance, for decisions where a bias might come into play. At the Institute we’ve created what we call the “SEEDS model” that groups biases by their underlying brain processes, and developed strategies for mitigating each type.

For example, in decisions about choosing who to promote to a management role, we know that similarity bias—that people similar to us are better—comes into play. By looking at commonalities, and how we’re similar to each candidate, we can mitigate that unconscious bias. The trick is that we have to do this ahead of the decision, which means knowing what types of decisions might invoke unconscious biases. This idea of changing the context of the decision, preparing ahead of time for decisions that are challenging, is critical.

“Individuals and teams can certainly work to mitigate bias, but the impact is much greater if an entire division or organization is on board. If there’s a strong HR team that can help drive this, it’s helpful.”

What advice would you give to organizations that want to mitigate unconscious biases to improve the outcomes of their decisions?

To tackle the impacts of unconscious bias, you really want this to be a systemic thing. Organizations should set up systems and processes for gathering all the information they need, and to ensure they go through certain steps before making a decision. Individuals and teams can certainly work to mitigate bias, but the impact is much greater if an entire division or organization is on board. If there’s a strong HR team that can help drive this, it’s helpful.

Any final thoughts?

I tell people, if you’re happy with the decisions you’ve been making, then carry on. If you’re not happy with the decisions you’ve been making, chances are there are unconscious biases at work. Oftentimes people come to the Institute to tackle some specific concern, like increasing diversity in their organization. But these unconscious biases are in play in all kinds of decisions, including ones to re-evaluate business strategies and to analyze risk. If you frame this as being about better decisions, you may get more people to the table.