Culture Traps – Part II: Unconscious Bias, Disrupting Unemployment and The New Enlightenment Era

“DIVERSITY OR INCLUSION?” Photo ⓒ Cosmin Gheorghe


Disruption does not translate into destruction. Disruption is change of economics. Disruption is change of scale. Disruption is new products and services that couldn’t even exist in the absence of that new disruptive technology. VINT CERF

Bias is generally defined as a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. In societies and organizations where hierarchy is rigorously respected and expected, people express freely their bias. In democratic societies, as well as in meritocratic organizations, where laws forbid certain types of discrimination, bias is repressed and therefore unconscious, showing up in more subtle ways. Unconscious bias is often used as an excuse, in the same way we excuse ourselves for behaving obnoxiously by saying “I’m sorry, I was drunk, I don’t remember anything”. It is actually very common for the unconscious bias to reveal itself precisely when we had a glass too much to drink (read here a true story, in which a tipsy lawyer female could simply not comprehend and accept that I am not a limo driver). In fact, Facebook research shows that “individuals and organizations that believe they are meritocratic often have the poorest outcomes.”

Bias is essentially an automatic reaction, aimed to help us navigate the world in a faster way. In essence, bias has the purpose of confirming and validating our world view, as it creates a feeling of reassurance, and by that it directs us toward what is familiar and predictable. We all have our comfort zones, even those of us who like to believe we are “out of the box” thinkers. Within our own unconscious box -of different sizes and different shapes- we are all convinced we are just and free. In fact, globalization and technology easily reveal the boxes in which we’ve been hiding our biases until not long ago. Bias helps us select from the outside world the events, people, and places that match our values and belief-system which -surprise!- are based on exactly the same values and beliefs that we have absorbed, at an unconscious, emotional level, from the culture(s) in which we grew up.

Unconscious bias has profound social and business implications, specifically at the labor market level. John Hagel III is Co-chair of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation and his research reveals how globalization has made unconscious bias one of the key challenges in matching labor supply and demand, with effects that go way beyond economics, deep into the social relations and politics:

Many workers have the necessary skills, yet aren’t able to connect with the work requiring these skills because of powerful biases among potential employers – gender, ethnic and racial biases continue to make it difficult to connect the right workers with the right jobs. If we go beyond the US to a global level, we see even more significant mismatches between labor supply and demand.There’s a powerful generational imbalance, with more developed economies dealing with rapidly aging populations while the younger generations are increasingly concentrated in developing economies where work is in shorter supply. Parts of the world are mired in conflict and corruption, limiting the availability of work for those who need it. The symptoms of this global imbalance are manifest in increasing concern over the influx of refugees and illegal immigration in certain countries. JOHN HAGEL

In the tech world, startup founders often talk with pride about how the product or service they have created with their buddies in some shabby San Francisco flat is disrupting such and such industry. Although “disruption is not destruction”, at least in an initial phase it involves some sort of annihilation, which may create systemic, global challenges. Those are often overlooked by the disruptors, who usually think globally only in terms of their ROI. However, history proves that the biggest problems we have on Earth -poverty, wars, climate changing- are due to decades of complete lack of systemic, global awareness, a sort of cultural individualism that keeps us slaves of our own conscious and unconscious biases.

David Nordfors is a former co-founding executive director of the Center for Innovation and Communication at Stanford University, who also likes the concept of disruption. His idea, however, is to disrupt the disruption itself. Together with Vint Cerf, Nordfors founded the Innovation for Jobs Ecosystem, with the purpose of disrupting unemployment itself:

Efficiency is not the same as growth. 
Efficiency is task-centered: we perform tasks more efficiently. We can automate everything and fire all the workers. Efficiency goes up. But since workers earn less without jobs, growth can go negative.
Growth on the other hand is people centered: we create more value for one another. We can automate everything and find new, better things for workers to do instead. Efficiency goes up. Growth goes up.  DAVID NORDFORS

Bias is one of the reasons work relationships have not evolved much since the beginning of the industrialized era: organization is seen as a machine, with employees treated as its mere spare parts. Oil them with Carrot & Stick Policies, and the machine will keep going. Well, it turns out that the Real Machine is now replacing all these jobs. Some see this as a fatal disaster. I would argue that in fact this puts everyone -machines and humans- in the place where they belong: by replacing most of our jobs, machines are giving us the chance to regain our humanity and begin a new, 21st Century Enlightenment era.

Cosmin Gheorghe

Cosmin Gheorghe (Co-founder of Synergis Counseling; Founder of Hermes' Writings and @CulturesWise) is a Bay Area based consultant, coach, speaker and author. His work explores the ways in which culture and technology influence our choices & decisions, as well as their impact on how we relate to each other, and to products and services. His approach is based on the concept of social and cultural systems, which are now transformed by globalization in socio-cultural networks. Cosmin loves writing and he is a regular contributor for the Huffington Post blog where he covers a variety of topics that involve culture, the psychology of technology, and global leadership. He was recently interviewed by Forbes about the importance of cultures in business and everyday life. Cosmin’s interests include: semiotics, philosophy, theater, cultural anthropology. In his pre-California life he obtained an MD degree in General Medicine and wrote and directed theater plays at Thespis Theatre in Timisoara, Romania.