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The Cost of Implicit Bias

Our increasingly interconnected world has brought a rich mix of cultures and viewpoints together in one big global community, opening us up to unprecedented opportunities, an expanded talent pool and new ways of thinking. But there are challenges as well, specifically in the form of unconscious, or implicit bias — social stereotypes that are so ingrained we don’t even recognize them.

They can be difficult to identify, but recognizing these blind spots is essential for an organization to realize its full potential, while failing to do so can come at a high cost. Let’s look at some of the ways implicit bias can negatively impact workplace culture as well as the bottom line.

Recruiting and Hiring

When the talent acquisition process is affected by unconscious bias, a business can cheat itself out of the most qualified and capable candidates available. Hiring and recruitment are too often driven by finding the best “cultural fit,” simply hiring candidates that feel most familiar and comfortable to the hiring manager. Being aware and open to a range of backgrounds and cultures can help avoid this trap.

Performance Evaluation

When managers develop implicit bias toward employees who are most like themselves, it can hinder efforts to accurately coach and evaluate team members. It’s called “ingroup-outgroup theory” — perceiving team members more favorably when they have an intrinsic similarity in terms of gender, age, race/ethnicity, religion and other factors. This clouds perceptions of actual performance criteria.

Promotions and Succession Planning

Bias is vividly evident when looking at the composition of executive management teams among Fortune 500 companies. Fewer than 1% of the CEOs are Black, and barely more than 6% are women, although they represent about 57% of the total workforce. In this way, implicit bias leans toward physical appearance, stereotypes and tradition over elevating the most qualified candidates. It’s not only morally wrong but also a bane to progress and innovation.

Innovation

Implicit bias undermines innovation at every level when it leads team leaders to seek the easiest, most convenient solutions rather than attempt the hard work of brainstorming more creative and integrative ideas. Easy shortcuts in the cognitive processes can give rise to biased thinking when more creative and innovative concepts would be more effective.

Building High-Performing Teams

Conflict often drives more innovative outcomes, but leaders tend to lean toward building teams based on trait diversity — choosing individuals based on familiarity and comfort — rather than functional diversity: opting for a more diverse range of subject matter expertise, backgrounds or specialized skills. Teams based on functional diversity are more likely to experience intra-team conflict and produce more innovative outcomes.

These are just a handful of ways implicit bias can undermine an organization’s performance and potential. Recognizing unconscious stereotypes is more important than ever for organizations in the 21st century — and failure to do so can cost a company dearly on many levels.

Our course, Leading Across Cultures, addresses the strategies, practices, and policies for how employees, leaders, teams, and organizations can minimize the negative outcomes of implicit bias.

Learn more about the Global Leadership Specialized Studies Program.