Only You Can Overcome the Invisible Barrier Keeping You From the Best Available Talent Unconscious bias is a learned mindset. Leaders who truly want the best teams will look beyond their own experiences to attract and retain a diverse workforce.

By Mike Ettling

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Today's leaders are constantly thinking (and worrying) about talent. Because a workforce is every organization's most vital resource, business success truly depends on whom you attract, hire and retain.

Businesses always perform better when they bring together unique and diverse employees -- people with different backgrounds, cultures, races, genders and perspectives -- and include them in the conversation. Studies have shown this type of cross-cultural collaboration leads to greater innovation.

Leaders set the tone.

As leaders, it's our responsibility to create environments where these experiences are the norm. To foster this brand of team identity, companies must attract and hire a diverse pool of talent, then ensure each individual feels included and supported.

Ironically, the hiring process is where many business problems begin. Before we try to fix these issues, however, we first need to understand how the recruiting funnel fosters such problems in the first place. Even hiring managers at an open-minded organization can be influenced by unconscious bias. This perspective can have long-term and far-ranging impacts on business -- most them, negative.

Related: How Amazon Aligns Employee Experience and Business Results

Unconscious bias hurts business.

Unconscious bias limits our businesses more than we realize. Though the global talent pool is broader and larger than ever before, we still can fall victim to unspoken assumptions and implicit biases. They lead us to view potential employees and job prospects narrowly, without seeing, developing and leveraging their full potential. We fail to recognize the inherent value that lies within these different people and their diverse backgrounds.

As a result, enormous pools of talent remain untapped. In fact, the problem is so severe we mislabel it: We don't have a talent shortage; our problem is we're not looking in the right places.

To overcome this mental obstacle, we must rethink how we attract and pursue talent. We need to eliminate bias from recruiting processes as well as internal decision-making procedures. Here's a three-step plan to make it happen.

1. Stop bypassing the best candidates. When we start recruiting for an open position, we assume we're looking at the most qualified candidates. In reality, we often unconsciously narrow the talent pool to exclude some of the best prospects.

For example, job descriptions for marketing professionals commonly use words and terms geared toward women, focusing on "adaptability," "flexibility," "self-awareness" and "creativity." By contrast, software developer roles often are unintentionally positioned toward men, featuring words such as "rock star," "ninja," "competitive" or "best in class."

Related: Why This Franchisee Became an Advocate for Transgender Job Seekers

Unconscious bias can cause us to give preference to a particular school, background, gender, ethnicity or age -- all while overlooking candidates who actually are more qualified. It can lead us to turn down a talented 56-year-old simply because he may be close to retiring or ignore a hard-working 23-year-old because she's fresh from a college you're aren't familiar with. Refuse to self-perpetuate this assumption that we leaders helped create.

2. Embrace diversity and practice inclusion. Allowing hiring to be restricted to certain qualities results in a workforce that lacks diversity. Where we grew up, the people we interact with, the schools we attended -- all influence who we are and what we bring to the workplace. It's human nature to gravitate toward applicants whose backgrounds are similar to our own. Yet that's exactly the problem. It encourages us to overlook those whose specific demographics don't match our previous experience or preconceived ideas.

Identifying this bias and eliminating it is only half the battle. As an organization, we must also ensure we're actually changing our culture to be more inclusive. If employees don't feel welcome, included and valued, they'll leave to find a more evolved workplace.

Related: How to Stop Unconscious Bias Before It Starts Against the People You Hire

3. Realize that groupthink is the enemy of innovation. Teams with too many similar mindsets choose conformity and harmony over creativity and uniqueness. It's an absolute danger for an organization. When employees resist anything that exists outside a singular philosophy, teams and leaders are reluctant to change. We should instead encourage our workers to explore new ways of thinking, tackle different approaches and be willing to fail and try again. That's how innovation happens. With unconscious bias continuously generating this dreaded groupthink, teams might never consider alternatives -- much less pursue them.

Related: Your Brain Doesn't Want to Change: 5 Ways to Make It.

We can solve this intrinsic issue.

Unconscious bias clearly damages businesses. So why is it still happening so frequently? For many, the problem is not knowing where to start.

As a good first step, we must work to help hiring managers face the hidden preferences they bring to decision-making. Tactfully help them understand how these biases can get in the way of finding and securing the best people for the jobs at hand.

Blind interviews aren't the answer, either. We must remain conscious of our focus and concentrate on skills that define the candidate's merit. Before you survey the options, create clear criteria that describes what a "qualified" candidate means to your company. Later, as you're in the midst of decision-making, ask yourself which qualities or factors are convincing you that one candidate is better than others. Challenge yourself to be honest about your own motivations as an employer.

Related: The Startups Trying to Fix the Bias Problem in Hiring

If your company still finds it difficult to remain conscious of bias, there's good news mixed with the bad: Technology is impartial. Intelligent technologies now being integrated into hiring processes can provide checks and balances previously unavailable. Machine learning means these assessments only will get stronger, detecting and countering new biases as they surface. Technology brings us ever closer to choosing the most qualified candidate, based solely on his or her experience.

It can be intimidating to admit to unconscious bias. No one wants to think she or he is guilty of succumbing to its influence. Yet it's far worse to be untruthful with yourself as an employer, leader or colleague. Being honest with yourself results in greater authenticity with your employees and your company. Ultimately, this transparency enables you to be a better leader -- one who takes the right steps to create a truly diverse and inclusive workforce culture.

Wavy Line
Mike Ettling

President of SAP SuccessFactors

Mike Ettling is president of SAP SuccessFactors. A seasoned executive with global experience in human capital and financial management, Ettling leads the HR line of business for SAP SE, which includes the leading cloud-based SAP SuccessFactors solutions and its 46 million users, plus the SAP ERP Human Capital Management solutions – numbering over 19,000 customers worldwide.

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