Affinity Bias, the Impact of Personal Blind Spots

The inclusion paradox highlights that whilst we are all humans, we are uniquely different; we like some people more than we like others.

The Stroop Effect is a demonstration of cognitive interference, a mismatch in stimuli manifesting itself in a delayed reaction time. Within such a hesitation we are prone to excluding people and whilst humans have a resounding need to feel included, in practice, it seems we are perhaps not as accepting as we may like. This is highlighted by a comparison of our subconscious “in” vs. “out” group.

Affinity Bias

It’s apparent that we all have a propensity for affinity bias. Selecting those who we feel we can relate to and those who we feel will slide seamlessly into the prevailing corporate culture. Such a nondisruptive decision has no positive impact when considering the organisational change companies seek in respect of diversity and inclusion.

Looking at this in the context of an interview, for those comfortably sitting within our “in” group, their experience will be much more enjoyable and sympathetic compared with those placed in our “out” group. As a consequence, our personal “blind-spots” are impacting not only the careers of those “outsiders” but also our ability to grow, develop and nurture a culturally diverse team, something which has been well documented to have a direct impact on business performance. If we are to ultimately achieve inclusion, we must highlight such biases and work hard to overcome them.

Research from a recent Ted Talk presented by Dr Helen Turnbull, a leading inclusion & bias expert, brought this issue to life. When considering affinity bias in relation to language skills across leadership, assertiveness and relationship building, professionals from non- English speaking backgrounds were rated lower than those of Anglo descent. Therefore, our blind spots, when left unrecognised, may result in a real issue when considering the development of talent pipelining and succession planning.

McKinsey – “Diversity Matters”

The benefits of a workforce comprised of those of different ages, backgrounds and cultures is well documented. McKinsey published a study in 2018 titled “Diversity Matters”, which looked at the data from a group of 366 companies from across a range of industries in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Latin America. The results revealed a statistically significant connection between diversity and financial performance. Those companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 per cent more likely to achieve financial returns above the national industry median.

We must challenge our conventional thought patterns. So often our bold ideas, our plans to create a uniquely different, high performing team are undone as a result of the pressures of a new position. We seek familiarity, hiring the profiles of those who have performed well for us in the past. We limit our risk, subsequently shifting our freethinking to conservatism, ultimately stunting business growth. However, when it comes to building high performing teams, diversity is proven to be key.

How do we break this cycle?

We must take the time to recognise our biases. We must enable a clear diversity & inclusion programme and we must ensure suitable talent pipeline and succession plans are in place internally. The inclusion of mentoring programmes is also known to be of real benefit, encouraging aspiring team members to take risks in a safe environment.

As a result, we will see colleagues thrive and progress, resulting in the type of organisational and cultural change we all seek. If we do have to look to the external market for talent, we must alter our selection process, reprioritising such traits as humility, curiosity and drive rather than reverting to the archetypal “power” profile of yesterday.

Unless we challenge our blind spots around affinity bias the cycle will remain unchanged. Our attempts to increase diversity and to achieve the much sought after organisational and cultural development will continue to struggle.



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