Playing a game of hide-and-seek at the campground last weekend resulted in two of the worst scraped knees my four-year-old has ever experienced. Amidst her tears she yearned for an explanation from me about why this happened and wanted to know how to prevent it. At this point I could give her one of two pieces of advice: either don’t run so fast or get better at running fast and knowing when you need to slow down to be safe.
Both approaches would prevent future scrapes, but they are vastly different in implementation and will yield wildly different life experiences.
Just like when we run at fast speeds we are more likely to take a tumble, when we perform at a high level at work we are more likely to make mistakes. Universally, our brains harbor systematic errors or biases. When we think fast, using our intuition, rather than slowly and deliberately, our brain doesn’t censor theses biases. (For a more in depth description of fast thinking, slow thinking and unconscious biases click here.)
At a high cognitive load we rely more on fast thinking—when we perform difficult tasks, multiple tasks or are under time constraints we depend more heavily on fast thinking. Notably these are all things that characterize a productive workday. Furthermore, as the tasks increase in difficulty and become more numerous, we need to rely more and more on our fast thinking to complete jobs is a timely manner. This reliance means as our performance increases, so too does the potential to fall victim to our biases, the systematic errors in our brain.
The important difference between the scrapes on our knees and allowing our biases to creep into our decisions is that the scrapes only hurt ourselves. Allowing biases to creep into our decisions can adversely affect others around us by manifesting in stereotyping and discriminative actions.
American working trends require workers to rely more and more on their fast thinking. Workloads and stress levels are escalating, as employees work longer hours and are given more and more tasks (Burrus, 2011). While the average hours worked per person in the US has remained roughly the same since WWII, studies show that a smaller proportion of people are working and those that are working are working harder and longer (McGrattan & Rogerson, 2000; Wilson & Jones, 2018). The New York Times reports that work is changing in its “intensity and relentlessness of the pressure, supercharged by digital life and a global economy that extends the once finite working day to all hours of day and night” (Schwartz, 2015). When people work longer and harder they are more likely to rely on their fast thinking and be susceptible to their unconscious biases.
The highest performing workers are those who rely most heavily on their intuition and are most susceptible to acting in accord with their unconscious biases. CNBC reported, in 2017, that the Senior Corporate Executive post is one of the top ten most stressful jobs in America (Elkins, 2017). The high levels of performance required by managers led to the models of “burnout” developed in the 1980’s (Cahoon, A., & Rowney, J. 1984; Leiter and Maslach, 1988;Golembiewski et al., 1986; Lee, R. T., & Ashforth, B. E., 1993). These high performing employees can be those in the most powerful positions and those making the most important decisions for corporations, decisions that have the largest impact on the company and its employees.
The faster you run the more likely you are to fall, unless you train yourself to run quickly without falling. Runners create habits so they can place their feet solidly in front of them at uniform distances without thinking about where their feet are going. They create habits that allow their legs to accelerate without causing imbalance. They even create lifestyle habits that support the levels of speed and endurance they endeavor to attain.
Like runners, corporate leaders need to “train” and create new habits in order to consistently make accurate decisions and censor the systematic errors in their mind. They need to become proficient at knowing when the stakes are high—when they might fall down and scrape their knee. They also need to become better at thinking fast and combat the incorrect thinking that has been shaped by our social system. By training and making new habits of thinking slowly when they know their unconscious biases could matter and combatting those biases directly, they will more likely promote the individual who is best for the job and less likely to make policies that will systematically alienate people who are different from them. This will foster a representative power pipeline within their company and reinforce their inclusion efforts.
After spending time examining the scars on my legs and sharing the stories of where they came from, I gave my daughter this advice: always run fast enough to skin your knees, but work diligently to run proficiently and know when to slow down so you don’t fall down. I hope she heads this advice in all aspects of her life.
Golembiewski, R. T, Munzenrider, R. E, & Stevenson, J. G. (1986). Stress in organizations: Toward a phase model of burnout. New York: Praeger.
Lee, R. T., & Ashforth, B. E. (1993). A londigtudinal study in burnout among supervisors and managers: Comparisons between the Leiter and Maslach (1988) and Golembiewski et al. (1986) models. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 54(3), 369-398.