Answer true or false: “I am an ethical manager.”
If you answered “true,” here’s an uncomfortable fact: You’re probably not. Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests. But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception. We’re deluded by what Yale psychologist David Armor calls the illusion of objectivity, the notion that we’re free of the very biases we’re so quick to recognize in others. What’s more, these unconscious, or implicit, biases can be contrary to our consciously held, explicit beliefs. We may believe with confidence and conviction that a job candidate’s race has no bearing on our hiring decisions or that we’re immune to conflicts of interest. But psychological research routinely exposes counterintentional, unconscious biases. The prevalence of these biases suggests that even the most well-meaning person unwittingly allows unconscious thoughts and feelings to influence seemingly objective decisions. These flawed judgments are ethically problematic and undermine managers’ fundamental work—to recruit and retain superior talent, boost the performance of individuals and teams, and collaborate effectively with partners.
This article explores four related sources of unintentional unethical decision making: implicit forms of prejudice, bias that favors one’s own group, conflict of interest, and a tendency to overclaim credit. Because we are not consciously aware of these sources of bias, they often cannot be addressed by penalizing people for their bad decisions. Nor are they likely to be corrected through conventional ethics training. Rather, managers must bring a new type of vigilance to bear. To begin, this requires letting go of the notion that our conscious attitudes always represent what we think they do. It also demands that we abandon our faith in our own objectivity and our ability to be fair. In the following pages, we will offer strategies that can help managers recognize these pervasive, corrosive, unconscious biases and reduce their impact.