07/30/2015 04:14 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

The Warning Sign of Unconscious Thinking (Bias) and How to (Begin to) Overcome It

Much has been written, spoken, agonized about the fact that all of us harbor some unconscious bias about someone else or some group. This topic is now the new zeitgeist, the second generation discrimination for most corporations seeking to overcome the lack of adequate representation of women and other underrepresented groups. The training, which according to FastCompany, is being undertaken by more than 20% of companies, is being donebecause organizations have found that, "with such dismal diversity numbers, some employers have realized that they can't trust their own judgment anymore".

Help wanted male/help wanted female job ads are the obvious discriminators. The use of words like 'assertive' in a negative performance review for a woman and in a positive review for a man, that's subtle and frequently not so obvious. But the effects of the latter may be as harmful, if not more, than the effects of the former.

Awareness of unconscious bias is not enough, but most training is focused on that. We need prescriptions, not descriptions to truly change behavior, both personal and systemic. Warning signs and directions can help. Here are a few warning signs that the organization, and its leadership, should consider:

1) We have a woman at the top. A recent study, reported by Glass Hammer (7/17/15) from the Robert H. Smith School of Business found that there was a 'hidden negative quota' for women in top leadership. If a woman holds one of the top five executive positions at a company, the chances of a second woman being appointed in those ranks falls by 51%. Getting a second woman promoted is far more difficult, let alone attaining a critical mass or majority.

Solution: One woman at the top is only the beginning not the reflection of a true sharing of power. Every position at the top (including line positions) should include at least one if not more non dominant group member for consideration.

2) The senior leaders reference their wives, daughters, mothers as their role models and why this makes them truly understand women's issues and barriers to equality. A corollary to this is "Some of my best friends are..." We all use our personal experiences to help inform the world we live in. That is heartfelt and well meaning. A male leader may think that because he wants the best for his daughter or wife he must ipso facto have an organization that would be good for women.

Granted, according to Catalyst, the research organization, men with daughters are more sensitive to gender issues. But that is not the same thing as operating the organization with all the data available and become fact based about the differing experiences of dominant groups and non-dominant groups in the organization. Beware too, what Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington calls the 'illusion of inclusion'. Organizations believe they MUST be fair because they show as proof that they have an office of diversity or programs directed at enhancing diversity, even in the face of statistics or cases that show the opposite.

Solution: Use the data and statistics that are readily known or can be known. An example is to evaluate the performance reviews and track how often men are negatively reviewed for personal communication styles versus how often women are reviewed for personal communication styles. (Shelley Correll of Stanford University has found that women are three times more likely to get feedback on communication style then men and women are 66% more likely to be coached to change their communication style. Another study reported in Forbes found that 76% of womens reviews included personal comments such as 'too aggressive'; 2% of men's comments did. Any organization that collects data on its employees can ferret out this signal of unconscious bias.

3) I never noticed that... women are interrupted more than men. Women's suggestions are less likely to be taken up and given credit; men's comments are more likely to be re-credentialized, given positive deference and referred to more often. Black men and women may code-switch their speaking styles far more than white men and women. Men's overconfidence may be harmful to the decisions being made. My 'go to' person(s) look a lot like me.

Solution: General awareness of unconscious bias is enlightening but specific awareness is crucial for behavior change. Managers in meetings can stop interruptions or undue deference if they first know to notice what the dynamics are. In one company I worked with research assignments were thought to be given out in a gender neutral fashion, until an actual diagram of assignments was done. Men were researching large companies in capital intensive industries; women got the small to medium companies in the service industries. Management had not noticed until it was documented and then was able to intervene positively. At minimum, the decisions on who gets what research should be made consciously (and though not likely, even if the final outcomes are the same as before).

An academic awareness of our proclivities toward unconscious bias and how our fast-thinking brains work are part of the journey but solutions and behavior change are the destination to fair, diverse and successful organizations.