#BreakTheBias: How to make your leadership assessments more inclusive

| 27 April 2022

This year the theme of the International Woman’s Day campaign was #BreakTheBias: Imagine a gender equal world. And I admit, I struggled a little. It’s probably why it took me a while to write this blog. After all, when you look at photos like the one taken at the Munich Security Conference this year it can be a daunting task. With that lack of diversity, it is hard to imagine ever getting a seat at that leadership table.

So how do we do that? How do we get those tables to reflect that beautifully diverse world around us? How do we ensure that all candidates for leadership positions are given equal opportunities to succeed? My colleague, Katie Howard, gave three great tips on how to attract more diverse talent. I’ll add three more things that, if done well, will make your leadership assessment process more inclusive.

Organisations often assume that candidates, especially at the executive level, have already been through a similar assessment process and know exactly what to expect. But do they? And even if they don’t – does it matter that much? It turns out it does.
When we provide a clear structure of the assessment process outlining the expectations at each stage, we not only create a better candidate experience, but we also allow candidates to manage their anxieties around an unfamiliar process, or one they haven’t experienced for a while. With that in mind, clarity around the process would allow people who tend to be more anxious than others, whether women or men, to better prepare and present themselves in a more confident way. This in turn will impact how we as assessors perceive them. For candidates with such tendencies, being thrown a curveball will most likely impact how they perform in that specific assessment situation, but not necessarily reflect accurately their ability to exceed in the day-to-day job.

Tip: Map out your assessment process. Write down the number and type of elements in the process (i.e., one-to-one interviews, psychometric tests, psychometric interview, panel interview) and the expectations for the candidate at each stage. Let the candidates know about them as soon as they enter your process. Then, make sure you’re not adding extra steps if the candidate doesn’t look or sound like a typical leader in your business. After all you are looking for diversity!

In order to make best use of the time we have with the candidate, and to better understand the person we’re meeting we utilise various psychometrics and ability tests. Although this helps to anchor our conversation, it comes with its own set of challenges.
For example, the research on personality questionnaires clearly identifies differences in self-reporting of male and female candidates. Men tend to rate themselves higher on stereotypically masculine traits like competitive, ambitious or controlling, whilst women tend to rate themselves higher on traits like caring or nervous. If taken at a face value, such results may have an adverse impact for those who do not fit the image of a stereotypical leader. An experienced assessor will explore themes in candidates’ profiles to ensure that you see in practice what you see on paper. Things get even trickier when it comes to ability tests which tend to have some degree of adverse impact. This can be amplified if ‘cut off scores’ are being used. If you are only willing to talk to candidates who scored above the 75th percentile on a numerical reasoning test, it will extremely limit your candidate pool. You may miss out on a fantastic talent who in that one, brief, specific moment scored below your expectations. When selecting assessment tools, think about the context and the purpose of the assessment. You may want to use a broader battery of tests for your senior, high-profile roles than for assessing potential of your front-line leaders. Before you decide to use a tool in your process, ensure their reliability (the consistency of a measure) and validity (the accuracy of a measure) – you should be able to find this information in the test guide or ask your test provider. Once you’ve mapped out your assessment process and selected your tools, think about the norm groups you will use. Go for the most diverse ones, not only most diverse in terms of gender but all types of diversity.

Tip: Consider what is essential for the role and then measure it. Don’t ask candidates to complete a stressful numerical ability assessment if their role does not require them to analyse complex numerical data daily. And always make an effort to check how representative the norm group is before you use a tool in your process.

All humans have biases. Assessors are humans. Yes, assessors have biases too. The caveat is, if you are aware of it, you can counteract it.

There’s a body of research suggesting that simply being aware of our own implicit biases and recognising that there are external barriers holding diverse groups back will help us make more inclusive decisions. We are more likely to stop and question our own judgement when we know our blind spots. Although unconscious bias training may make some feel more uncomfortable than others, it is critical to explore what beliefs we hold and how are they impacting our decision making, so we can make a conscious effort to counteract them. For example, Dana Kanze, an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, wanted to understand why male start-up founders raise higher levels of funding than their female counterparts. Interestingly, the study shows that the gender bias in the questions that investors pose to entrepreneurs seems to have a lot to do with that inequality. Male entrepreneurs are more often asked promotion focused questions. This type of questions is concerned with growth i.e., How are you going to increase our market share? This allows male entrepreneurs to showcase their strategic thinking. Female entrepreneurs on the other hand tend to be asked prevention focused questions which are concerned with protecting the current state. Essentially, male entrepreneurs are often given an opportunity to impress, while female entrepreneurs need to prove their right to be where they are. It’s not difficult to imagine how that can impact the result of the conversation.

Tip: Train your assessors to help them check their own unconscious biases and develop inclusive interviewing skills to help them avoid overfocus on prevention questions when interviewing female candidates.

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