Raising Awareness About the Impact of Unconscious Bias
Multinational companies operating in Asia and other foreign regions may be overlooking potential leaders by defining leadership qualities through a U.S. lens, says Jane Horan, founder of The Horan Group, a strategic consulting firm focused on organizational development and based in Singapore. Horan, who has lived and worked in Asia for two decades, specializes in leadership acceleration, unconscious awareness and workplace politics. Before starting her own firm, she conducted talent and leadership development work for companies such as Kraft, The Walt Disney Company and CNBC.
Diversity Best Practices’ Editor-in-Chief Angela Johnson Meadows chatted with Horan via email about workplace challenges and the impact of unconscious bias.
How did you get into the field of organizational development?
Having worked in HR and learning development, I intuitively felt much more was needed to embed learning into organizations. I worked on multiple change and M&A projects, and often the results rarely turned out as planned. Fascinated with cultures and anthropology, I always asked “How do things work inside companies?” These questions, along with an interest in cultures, led me away from HR and learning and into organizational development. Studying the connections between people, strategy, process, systems, rewards and leadership made perfect sense.
What brought you to Asia?
As a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, I volunteered to teach English in China. I studied Chinese and taught graduate students in Changsha, Hunan Province. I later moved to Hong Kong to work for a family run conglomerate, and eventually started working for The Walt Disney Company, also based in Hong Kong.
Tell me about your work around unconscious bias.
Before moving to China, I participated in intense crosscultural development, and later on facilitated similarly styled workshops. In my previous OD position, I was on the other side of talent management discussions. I would often see talented managers passed over for promotions, and I asked senior management what their decision-making process was for who “got in” and who was “left out.” The common thread in their responses was usually he or she “lacks leadership presence.”
What did they mean by presence?
Presence is difficult to define, culturally laden and entirely subjective. Leadership presence is quite different in Beijing, Boston, Bombay or Buenos Aires. Using a U.S. lens on leadership is not applicable across a multicultural corporate landscape.
What were the other reasons managers were being passed over?
Another response was, “They’re not visible. No one in HQ knows them.”….. While everyone wants a leader to be visible, we have to take a step back and ask if visibility is actually a critical element of leadership. In some cases, it is a resounding yes; other situations maybe not. Visibility is not always natural, or cultural, for some people. Developing awareness in both cultural and, hence stylistic, differences and unconscious bias almost always reveals more talented people in the organization. We all have premeditated thoughts on people and cultures, but leadership has to think much more counter-intuitively from hereon in.
What else do companies need to consider?
The next question that should follow is whether there is really a war for talent or are we overlooking the talent right in front of our noses? Research indicates that leadership is skewed towards the masculine—and I would add western—perspective, as many leadership models emanate from the West and multinational corporations use competencies and leadership frameworks from their headquarters. But the power base has shifted east, so where does that leave leadership frameworks?
In my unconscious bias sessions, I target discussions to look at the cultural realities at work: talent management, recruitment and performance reviews to help organizations ‘’see’’ bias. It’s often bias that is subtle and unconscious, which most leaders would swear up and down they are not guilty of, and those biases are decisions often made in a few seconds.
Does unconscious bias play out differently in Asia than it does in the United States?
Unconscious bias is ubiquitous. It’s not good or bad, it just is. We run our lives from our unconscious mind and couldn’t get through the day without it. The only time bias is negative is when we select one group to the detriment of another. Given that bias is part of life, it is hard to delineate differences between the United States and Asia.
One area, as I mentioned, is cultural, given the diverse cultures (in Asia).… I often hear people comment as they step off the plane in Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo, “This looks just like (another city),” but it’s not. We have a natural tendency to search for similarities or commonalities, but I recommend starting with opposites and embracing the differences.
What can multinational corporations do to address unconscious bias?
The first step is recognition. A simple and effective method is to build awareness through internal, hands-on discussions and workshops, and rigorously and objectively re-examine organizational systems and processes.
A hi-tech organization I worked with conducted a compensation audit and discovered huge gender differences in regional salaries across Asia. Start with an audit of compensation and benefits and move across other processes. Facilitate bias awareness workshops alongside performance, bonus and talent management reviews. Don’t run these workshops as a stand-alone, nice to have discussion. Run an unconscious bias workshop right before performance review sessions or as part of talent review meetings and you will begin to see and more easily measure the impact.