With consumer product companies increasingly serving a global market, winning in the 21st century means understanding a more diverse consumer base. Consider that in 2030, ASEAN will become the world’s fourth-largest economy,1 with a consumer market valued at approximately US$4 trillion. Given this reality, diversity becomes not just the “right thing to do” but the lynchpin of any future strategy.
But what can hold companies back is the issue of unconscious bias—a difficult to pinpoint roadblock that can keep you from building a truly diverse workforce. Fighting unconscious bias is critical to challenging what may be local assumptions applied on a global scale and, in turn, inhibit the ability to understand how consumers access and engage with products in a range of cultures.
But what exactly is unconscious bias? The term was coined by Greenwald and Banaji in 1995,2 whose research highlighted that implicit biases—including experiences, social background, and environment—can impact our behavior and decision-making unknowingly. As such, unconscious bias is not easily identified as it varies from person to person, each with their own perceptions, assumptions, and interpretations of the world.
Add to this the fact that in today’s world the brain is processing 11 million3 bits of data per second4—34GB of information a day— exacerbating a person’s ability to avoid unconscious bias. In order to cope with the processing of such large sums of data the brain makes instinctive assumptions, connections, and interpretations as opposed to rational thinking. As a result, biases are formed based on intrinsic connections—again, culture, upbringing, and experiences—that are made between the data to contend with the daily bombardment of information. Some of these connections can often be based on stereotypes, misinformation, and one-sided news stories.
In light of this, it’s clear there is no one-size-fits-all solution to unconscious bias. Even the Implicit Bias test developed by Greenwald and Banaji to understand biases has been called into question with regards to the validity of its answers. So how can organizations overcome bias?
Education is key to addressing bias in order to impact internal processes and external outputs. Solutions must permeate the culture of the organization through messaging, how you speak, and how you hold ourselves accountable. The measures for addressing unconscious bias need to become part of an organization’s DNA.
There are three key elements in the ecosystem of opportunity that can help close the gap in the diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) space—sponsorship, readiness, and bias mitigation.
For example, within Deloitte, sponsorship is being used to develop and support the progression of internal talent. Readiness then supports succession planning internally to ensure the provision of opportunities that develop the skills and experiences required for promotion to senior leadership.
But readiness also means looking externally to reconfigure the diversity balance across the organization. To do this effectively, recruitment teams need to be educated as to how unconscious bias appears in the recruitment and selection process, including sourcing candidates as well as the application and selection processes.
Training can help mitigate unconscious bias and does serve a purpose. But the solution needs to run deeper than this. Employees need to understand how biases can impede the performance of the organization—and that the impact of unconscious bias can be felt in every aspect of the organization, from recruitment to client solutions and career progression, to feeling safe being your authentic self. If left unchecked, unconscious bias can even impact your ability to both attract and retain talent.
An example of how you can think beyond bias is Deloitte’s Business Chemistry Framework, which provides a simple yet powerful way to identify meaningful differences between people’s working styles. The framework highlights the added value a member brings to the team and the additional resources needed for them to excel. How does this address unconscious bias?5 By shifting the focus to predetermined categories, based not on an individual’s heritage, gender, or social class, but on whether they are one of four categories as defined by the framework: Pioneer, Driver, Integrator, and Guardian. Each category is associated with a set of behaviors and traits. Although the solution is not perfect, as trying to put anyone in a “box” is never an ideal solution, it does provide a different set of acceptable triggers when building business relationships.
Building a winning strategy
Globalization, enabled by advancements in technology and the advent of the fourth industrial revolution,6 has reshaped barriers to trade. Consequently consumer products companies are reaching far beyond their national borders. Given these circumstances, there needs to be a real sense of urgency to applying the concepts of unconscious bias so that you can build and sustain a global consumer base. Your ability to win in a range of markets and meet consumers’ needs and wants can depend on it. Getting it right is critical—and should immediately garner support from all areas of your business.
There is little doubt that how we address unconscious bias internally can ultimately impact winning in the global marketplace. No organization can afford to ignore the fact that strategy without diversity will not lead to success in the 21st century. The importance of diversity needs to permeate the culture of your organization, embedded seamlessly into every process, every decision, every engagement, and ultimately every interaction.