What’s the #1 barrier for inclusion and diversity?

In my last post, we looked at how biases influence our decisions and actions, today we’re looking at the #1 cause of exclusion in the workplace.

The power of affinity bias

Most people say they appreciate diversity. However, human beings innately perceive anyone different as a threat because our brain has an evolutionary requirement to do so. Our human tendency is to divide the social world into groups, in groups (the groups we belong to), and out groups. As a result, we treat instinctively ingroup members with care and outgroup members with caution. We tend to stay in our comfort zones and connect with and favour people who are just like ourselves. This is called “affinity bias”, and this is the number one cause for exclusion. Not the fact that we exclude intentionally people who are different from us, even if this can be true in many cases. Unfortunately, some people are deliberately racists, sexists,  homophobes, etc. Affinity bias turns meritocracy into a “mirrorocracy” in most organisations [i]. An insidious way affinity bias manifests itself is through the “fit question”. When people ask “Will he or she fit into our culture?”, what they’re really looking for is reassurance that the new person is similar to the group.

Three other biases closely related to affinity bias:

  • The confirmation bias.  When you like someone, usually because the person is similar to you in some ways, you’ll scan the reality in a very selective mode. Everything that confirms your gut feeling will be kept, everything that goes against it will be ignored. And that’s how you rationalize opinions that are not based on facts to begin with, but come from feelings of comfort
  • The “halo and horns” effect. If you like someone, or if you have a high opinion of someone, whatever the person does will be interpreted positively (the halo effect). If you dislike someone, whatever the person does will be interpreted negatively (the horns effect). There’s a study where students were asked to interpret the behaviours of rats in a labyrinth. Half of the students were told that the rats had been genetically modified to be very smart. The other half was told that the rats had been genetically modified to be very dumb. As a result, the exact same rats and same behaviors were interpreted in completely different ways. For instance, the rats pause before taking an exit was seen as a sign of intelligence by one group, and as a sign of stupidity by the other group.
  • The Pygmalion effect. People’s behaviours are influenced by our expectations about them. When you like someone or have a high opinion of someone, you implicitly expect the best from that person. That positive expectation acts like an encouragement to do your best. The contrary is also true. When you don’t expect much from someone, your negative expectation has a negative consequence on people’s performance. A known experiment illustrates well the Pygmalion effect. In a school class, teachers were told some students had a high IQ, even though in reality they had average IQs. A few months later, the students who the teachers believed had high IQs, had progressed much faster than the other students. Because teachers treated them like smart kids, they started performing like smart kids. This is a big lesson for all of us, not only in the corporate world, but also in our private lives, on how we treat our kids…

Pause for a moment and ask yourself: who do you spend most time with at work? Who do you go for advice? Whose opinion do you ask for in meetings? Do people you hire look like each other? How similar are they to you? Once I met a director in the oil and gas industry who told me that the first criteria he looked for on a CV was whether the candidate was a scout. Because he too had been one! No wonder, the same director complained about how difficult it was to find qualified candidates. His talent pool was indeed very small: qualified engineers with a scout history.

I could see affinity bias in myself when I was facilitating training sessions in France in a construction company that employed a high number of first and second generations of Portuguese immigrants. When participants had Portuguese sounding names, I realized I had a tendency to look more often to them. Something that I quickly corrected once I became aware of it.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below!

This is an excerpt from one of the chapters of my upcoming book “Succeed as an inclusive leader – Winning leadership habits in a diverse world” (release in April 2017).

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Check out my Inclusive Leadership Program that empowers leaders and managers to get the most out of their teams by outsmarting unconscious bias and by attracting and inspiring diverse people.

[i] Adam Quinton, The Paradox of Meritocracy – in Tech, May 2016


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  • #1 BARRIER is …you!

    February 25, 2017
  • Important also to note that being aware of the barrier does still not allow to overcome it- after all it happens subconsciously. Hence training is most of the time not the solution! The system needs to be designed to not allow bias, e.g., by removing all references that are picked up by unconscious bias. And we need to objectively measure for bias as a starting point of designing the system accordingly.

    March 7, 2017

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