It’s well-established that the best ideas, decision-making and problem solving result from integrating different perspectives, skill sets and experiences. In turn, one of the most critical leadership skills is being able to foster work settings where all employees contribute fully and openly exchange and value different ideas and perspectives. Bias is a significant risk for inclusion, and there are three key biases that leaders must be aware of and seek to manage if they are to succeed in building diverse and inclusive work settings.

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is a preference for people with backgrounds similar to our own, and it has social and cognitive consequences.

Socially, studies show we tend to favour the company of people similar to ourselves. At work, affinity bias might cause some people to be excluded from formal or informal activities. One study showed that thirty-seven percent of Australians report feeling lonely at work, and a similar percentage say they are excluded because of their identity. Feeling excluded has significant effects on wellbeing, performance, and willingness to take risks. Our brain responds to social rejection as it does to physical threats. Social anxiety ignites the amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain that mobilises the fight-or-flight-freeze response, hijacking higher brain centres. While that fight-or-flight reaction may save us in life-or-death situations, it handicaps the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace. Also, when people don’t feel interpersonally safe, they are less inclined to take risks—speaking up, providing honest feedback, or sharing their ideas.

Affinity bias can also lead us to actively solicit, pay greater attention to, and favour the contributions of ingroup members over outgroup members. The perspectives and ideas of people different from us are rejected, overlooked, dismissed, or discounted. Studies show people are less likely to believe factual information when it is delivered by someone whose accent differs from the dominant accent, even when alerted to the phenomenon.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation bias can lead us to reject or discount team members’ contributions if they do not align with our pre-existing ideas. In diverse work settings, confirmation bias can exacerbate the effects of affinity bias by orienting our attention towards individuals with a background similar to ours and who share our views and perspectives.


Stereotypes can also influence the value we assign to an individual’s contribution. For example, studies show that men (and other women) interrupt women in professional settings more often than they interrupt other men. In one study, men interrupted women 33% more often than other men. As a result, women’s voices and ideas are much less likely to be heard and valued, with negative implications for innovation and the quality of decision-making, but also for the visibility, assessments of competency, and career progression of women.

Managing Bias

Inclusive leaders are mindful of their own and others’ biases and are intentional in their interactions. They reflect on their interactions and decision-making to learn about their bias. They actively invite and seek to understand perspectives different to their own, adopt an open mind, and foster a sense of curiosity and humility, acknowledging that their view is limited and that the best problem-solving requires a diversity of viewpoints and ideas. They realise that if they are not actively including, they are probably unconsciously excluding. They also encourage these attributes in their team.