How important, really, is it that vegetables be arranged by color, cereal boxes stacked perfectly on the shelves, or soft drinks arranged by size as opposed to brand? These elements might not seem particularly important to the rest of us, but ask someone in the food retail business if they matter and the answer will be a resounding “Your bet they do!”
Amanda Pallais, Dylan Glover and William Pariente also knew these things mattered when they undertook a study of the impact of unconscious bias on manager effectiveness in a French grocery store chain.
Why grocery stores? Because, unlike in the case of many other jobs, grocery employees routinely work with different managers on different days. This flexibility allowed researchers to track how a given worker performed under biased and unbiased supervision.
Here’s how the study worked. First, researchers – all of whom were working under the auspices of Harvard University – had the store managers take a version of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT is designed to provide clues to the existence of unconscious bias. In this particular case, they were testing for biases about grocery workers who had North African names versus native French names.
Having divided managers into those who appeared to have unconscious biases against the North African employees from those who did not, they then set out to see if there was any difference in how workers performed under each group of supervisors.
The study revealed what we all sadly would have expected: Minority workers did, in fact, did perform less well when working with the biased managers than with the unbiased managers. The beauty of this study was that the results were based on clearly-visible metrics such as how fast cashiers scan items or how often they were absent. (And, in case you are wondering, there was no difference in the performance of non-minority workers under biased or unbiased managers.)
That result, in my view, isn’t surprising – hopefully, by now, we all realize that bias in the workplace is bad for performance. The question then becomes, what is the relationship between bias and poor performance? Sure, often the reason is the straight-forward and tragic reality that the biased manager simply dislikes minorities and, therefore, treats them badly.
But, this situation defies that expectation. The researchers found that the biased managers, in fact, did not treat the minorities less well. Instead, they simply interacted with them less. The reason? Because the managers had what is called “aversive racism.” Coined in the 1980’s, the term applies to those who don’t actively attack those different from ourselves, but, instead, out of discomfort, tend to avoid them.
In the managers’ case, this avoidance meant speaking to minority employees less, being less friendly, and providing less praise or guidance. And, as the researchers point out and as we all know, when a team member knows the boss doesn’t care and isn’t paying attention, they feel less valued, put in less effort and, ultimately, perform less effectively. If you are looking at a way to express the business case for defeating bias in the workplace, it sure doesn’t get clearer than this.
The material in this post reflects the ideas expressed in Dr. Thiederman’s book 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias and in the training videos Defeating Unconscious Bias: 5 Strategies and Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations.
© copyright 2019 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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