Making the unconscious conscious-The Google Way!

Last Tuesday, the Oct 20th, I was lucky to attend the monthly meeting of Minnesota Professionals for Psychology Applied to Work (MPPAW).The keynote speaker of the session was Dr. Brian Welle, Director of People Analytics at Google. Thanks to Mr.Paul Thoreson for inviting me to the event. It was a wonderful session where Brian talked about the project he is handling which is on addressing the biases at Google. Since Google is a pioneer in many transformational workplace initiatives and most of us are always eager to hear anything about what is happening inside the company, I thought I should share it with you.

Biases are very common in all domains of life. But most of us, especially in an organizational context don’t succumb to biases knowing that we are doing so. There may be some decisions based on stereotypes, be it that of gender, race, age etc. But most of the biases happen unconsciously. Human brain receives around 11 million bits of information every second, but is capable of processing only 40 of them. This is only .01% of the total and rest 99.9% goes into the sphere of unconsciousness. Biases fall into this dark area and when we run out of enough data to make decisions we depend highly on these unconscious biases which are formed by our experiences and environments. Now you can imagine the extent and quantity of biased decisions and actions that we all may be taking in our daily life, that too unknowingly. Brian and his team at Google has channeled their efforts into this-making the unconscious conscious and control biases at all levels and intensities at Google.

What a great idea, isn’t it? When we talk of biases the one thing that comes along with that is diversity and inclusion and most of the organizations today have many initiatives focused on these. In US context, thanks to EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and the AAP (Affirmative Action Plans) which makes it a legal obligation for employers to hire candidates from the protected classes. But take a moment here, step back and think. Most of these efforts are directed only at the hiring practices. Do we really think about what happens to these diverse candidates inside the company once they are hired? Are they getting equal opportunities for growth and development as others? If that was the case why is that only 4.4% of the S&P 500 CEOs are women while they account for 45% of the total labor force in these companies. (Source: Catalyst, Women CEO of the S&P 500, 2015)

This obviously means that biases occur in some way or the other at all levels of the organization. This was just an example of many of them which need not be necessarily gender based. One important example that Brian talked about was the Confirmation bias where people start giving up their unique thinking and ideas just to confirm to the group norms and beliefs .How deadly that can be for a highly innovative company like Google! You can find n number of other biases like the Halo effect, the horn effect, similar to me bias, recency effect and the list goes on.(May be we can discuss about the biases alone in another post.) These biases are not only affecting the people practices but also other aspect of the business including product development where engineers generally carry stereotypes about a typical customer and fail to make designs for all types of users. So how is Google tackling this?

Brian and his team has developed a workshop, Unconscious Bias @ Work, which has been attended by almost 60%of the Googlers so far to create awareness about this issue and educate the employees on how they can address this. They suggest four ways by which we can control the effects of the unconscious biases which I think can be used by all of us in our daily lives too.

  • Create a structure for success: Define the pointers to a successful decision and use that for all decisions that come under the area. An example of that at Google is the use of structured interview process for all hires for which the structure has been developed through a thorough study of what attributes relate to success in each job.
  • Collect Data: Keep collecting data from all activities that you do and look for biases of any kind in these. This can really be an eye opener. It may be a very simple one like the tip you give to a waiter/tress at a restaurant based on their looks. (Don’t worry, you are not alone in this!!)
  • Look for subtle clues: As already said all biases may not be that obvious. We need to look under the veil and also all around us to see if there are any.
  • Make people accountable: This is what I loved the most. This is about developing a culture where people are accountable for reducing the biases, of self and those of their colleagues. Googlers are encouraged to call out biases done by anyone in the company and these are welcomed with an open mind.

So it’s just not about attending a workshop and conveniently forgetting about it after that, but making it a way of life. I think this is where Google stands out. It may be true that they are at an advanced stage to use data from all touch points to develop initiatives like this and create a transformational workplace with empowered employees. But we should also remember how young they are as an organization.

Well, Google is not the only company that is working on these unconscious biases; there are many others including Facebook, Royal Bank of Canada, Roche Diagnostics etc. What we all can do in our organizations is to create the awareness and acceptance that biases do occur and it can badly affect the efficiency and effectiveness of our people, practices and business as a whole. It may take some efforts and time, but it surely is a good starting point. And like all other cultural change practices, this would be effective if it starts at the top of the ladder. Leaders need to understand and show to the employees that having these unconscious biases may not be a wrong thing as you are not aware of them, what is actually needed is to accept that these happen and work towards reducing them. But what I really wish for is the conscious biases to be completely eradicated before we move on to the unconscious realm.


The Ardent HR

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  • Steve Page, Ph.D.

    Thanks so much for the summary. This is a topic close to my heart (and research) and a meeting I regret missing because of other obligations. The issue of what is a bias is complicated, of course, by such factors as how one defines and operationalizes “bias,” and the possibility that what one person calls a bias in one situation may be recognized as a useful heuristic in another context (e.g., “We should consult an OD professional because it has proved useful before”). Nevertheless, I thoroughly agree that awareness of biases, one’s own and one’s organization’s, are worthy achievements and incredibly useful. And there you have a couple of my own biases. I would argue that there are ALWAYS biases present, both at the individual and collective level, and we never get completely beyond them.
    I believe there is a developmental component that needs to be recognized in all this, however. We adults differ widely in our capacities to see biases, seek them out, and take them into account. My meta-analysis of the past 50 years of research on adult development (mainly in Western societies) shows strong empirical support that most adults (18 years of age and older) do not regularly account for the influence of their own biographical history and culture on their perceptions, values, and beliefs. Being exposed to the idea that biases can be due to the influence of such things on the one hand, and on the other hand habitually taking them into account as one goes about one’s work are entirely different things. Research by adult developmentalists has consistently shown that less than 10-15% of adults do habitually consider and account for such factors as personal background, family, culture, and language in our different perspectives. My big question, and a question that the program at Google seems to be addressing, is need this be so?
    What I find particularly interesting and exciting about a program to help everyone in an organization increase their awareness of biases is that it may actually help individuals develop capacities to habitually see how biases have a real impact and make a real difference in our perspectives, ideas, and decisions. Google’s efforts to Increase awareness in adults of the inevitable presence and influence of biases, how these affect one’s work, and ways to work around them and with them may be a harbinger of what is truly new about 21st century organizations. I applaud Google’s efforts and am mighty curious about follow through efforts and long-term effects.


    Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts,Steve.I do believe that the cultural background,the family circumstances and the way we have been brought up etc do have an important influence in the way we perceive things and our biases towards them.Do you have your research published somewhere?I would love to see that.Thank you again.

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