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Mar 8, 2022
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37. President, Percipio Consulting

37. President, Percipio Consulting

Jeff interviews Matthew Cahill, an expert in unconscious bias. Matthew works with business leaders to identify hidden and sometimes not so hidden biases that impact company performance, helping organizations move from bias to belonging. Matthew shares a clear definition of bias and helps listeners understand how it impacts them personally, as well as the organizations they serve. They discuss how bias is found in everyone, and what some specific examples are of unconscious bias. Matthew shares how reducing bias ultimately leads to better performance and a return on investment for the company. Matthew shares the five core types of bias, and the meaning of L.E.A.A.P. Jeff and Matthew close the episode by showing us how to measure bias and what to do with that helpful information.


Intro: Duration: (01:44)

Opening music jingle & sound effects

Jeff Hunt:

This is human capital produced by GoalSpan and I'm Jeff Hunt. My goal on this podcast is to uncover the deeply human aspect of work. One of the ways we can develop organizations and leaders to be their best is by recognizing and addressing different types of bias that show up at work. Think about unconscious bias for a second.

How does it show up in your workplace? Is it when the younger female is always asked to be the one to take notes at your meetings? Or perhaps all new hires seem to be the same age, gender, or ethnicity? Maybe you were called out for a recent problem in your performance review, but your manager forgot how you actually crushed it on that project like five months ago.

Unconscious bias causes untold problems. And today my guest is going to help you see how it shows up at work and in yourself and what to do about it. He's going to show us how everyone on planet earth actually has bias. Matthew Cahill is an expert in unconscious bias. He understands cognitive social and institutional biases and his company Percipio.

Works with business leaders to identify hidden and sometimes not so hidden biases that impact company performance. Percipio ultimately helps organizations move from bias to belonging, which by the way, leads to better financial performance for all you finance and accounting professional listening today.

Welcome, Matthew.

Matthew Cahill:

Thank you, Jeff. Appreciate it.

Topic 1. Who or what inspired you in your career? (01:45)

Jeff Hunt:

Thanks for coming on the show and sharing your wisdom today. This is a difficult topic and it's one that a lot of people don't understand. And so I'm excited to unpack it with you. But before we do share briefly about your career journey and who inspired you most along the way

Matthew Cahill:

My own journey started in 2010. When a former boss of mine asked me if I would come and do some consulting work with this small burgeoning company at the time called LinkedIn, most of your listeners would know LinkedIn now as it's somewhat of a household name and within the American borders and beyond.

That's what pulled me into this type of work in terms of applying it from an external person, an external perspective to help an organization refine and root out biases that have become baked into their processes and their systems of governance. And in LinkedIn's case, that was just in there, their rapid growth trajectory.

They had internalized some unconscious bias. And by changing some of the processes, we were then able to put some mitigation strategies in, so that those biases weren't perpetuating the kind of practices, in this case, hiring practices, that was leading the company, in a homogenous direction.

So, I'll give credit to my former boss as being the person that really initiated me and, you know, pulled me down this road.

Topic 2. What does bias mean? If you have a brain, do you have biases? (03:29)

Jeff Hunt:

I love that. Give our listeners Matthew a quick definition of bias, just to make sure that we're all sort of starting on the same page.

Matthew Cahill:

Yeah. That is the starting point for this conversation.

That is the starting point that I use with my prospects with my clients is level setting on what we're talking about. I think one of the reasons that bias is such a useful linguistic construct. Is because it's so malleable, it can be used, and it means different things in different contexts. Almost like the word snow has 16 different variations in native Alaskans indigenous tribes, people that live in the snow, right?

They look at it differently. They embrace it differently and I feel the same way about bias. It can be used in the context of gender bias, racial bias, a bias related to culture, ethnicity, orientation, age, abilities, mental health like there are a lot of social biases.

Collectively I call them social biases. And I think that type of bias is best measured in behaviors, not necessarily thoughts, right? Best measured in actions, how people relate and interact with one another, which is intimately related to thought. But I think the realm of unconscious bias is relegated to thoughts.

I think that's where bias originates. That's where it begins is in our brains. And therefore the tagline, if you have a brain, you have bias. It's not anything to fear. It's not anything to feel bad about. It's really coming into it with a measure of curiosity and excitement, actually, to learn more about how your brain is processing information and where you're susceptible to errors in judgment.

Jeff Hunt:

Very interesting. And I mentioned in my intro that virtually every human being on the planet has a bias or unconscious bias, which completely supports your concept of having a brain have bias, which I believe didn't you have that trademarked?

Matthew Cahill:

I do. You can look it up that the patent office, that Percipio company owns the trademark rights to, if you have a brain, you have a bias because I believe so strongly in it.

And what it also does simultaneously is start to de-stigmatize bias. What I meant when I said bias is a useful linguistic construct is because once you start to frame a conversation around that, it has very different implications. Because it's not uncommon to hear somebody say, I have a bias for ice cream instead of chocolate, or it can be used, in a positive construct.

But it's also provocative, right? So that it catches your attention and in a world where our attention is probably the most sought-after commodity that we have, and we're not even aware of it. Right? So we need to have starting points that are able to capture our attention, which I think bias also serves that purpose.

If you are able to de-stigmatize bias and really lean into the conversation with a measure of curiosity, it's a very different outcome than if you're leading a conversation with prejudice or harassment. Or discrimination. I mean, these terms are closely related to bias quite often, but when you lead with those terms, you're immediately creating a defensive reaction.

There are legal implications to conversations that are rooted in those terms. And I don't know that they necessarily lead towards the constructive outcome. And if you're having that conversation, maybe you don't want a constructive outcome. Maybe you need to part ways with somebody. Right?

So I don't want to say those are useless terms, but they're very different and they're very different conversations.

Jeff Hunt:

One method or approach leads to an openness and a dialogue that's constructive. And it sounds like the other one leads to one that is fueled with defensiveness and potential problems.

Matthew Cahill:

Absolutely, absolutely. And everything in between.

Topic 3. Examples of unconscious bias (08:06)

Jeff Hunt:

I mentioned some examples of unconscious bias in my intro. I am curious about what ways you've seen unconscious bias show up with your clients and in your own life. What are some specific examples that you can think of?

Matthew Cahill:

Well, what you used are great priming examples.

I mean, those are examples that are not necessarily obvious, but you can see they're very ubiquitous. Like you can see a lot of those examples. There's other research that's been done to provide evidence of unconscious bias with, you know, male names on resumes versus female names on resumes.

The rest of the resume is identical. But the male name gets favorable treatment ends up getting offered more money. There are similar experiments that have been done with white-sounding names versus black-sounding names. There's a lot of research that goes in to show the existence of evidence of unconscious bias.

One of my favorite activities is to teach constantly, like make people aware of some of these unconscious biases and then just have them step back and look at their own life because you don't have to look very far to see the effect of unconscious bias. The easiest one is "like me" bias, right? That's one that we're all subject to because we all gravitate towards people who are like us.

And I'll have people often do a trusted five activity where you have to name the five people in your life that you trust the most. And it can't be like a blood relation or an immediately obvious, and you get to define what trust means, right? So really what the result is after you named them, then I have them, I extend the grid and I say, now, Identify their race, their gender, their orientation, their age.

Are they married or not? Like all these common things that are more tightly tied to your values. And usually, it's a very homogenous group. Like that's usually what the result is. I might be an outlier here or there, but we all do it. It's there's a tremendous source of comfort when you're around like-mindedness and people who share that.

In the workplace, it's not often that is A possible to sustain B there's a lot of evidence that shows groups like that end up underperforming over time. So, there are a lot of strong motivators to disrupt "like me" bias when you're talking about being in the workplace.

Topic 4. The ROI of reducing bias (10:52)

Jeff Hunt:

And that's a great segue to a question I wanted to ask you, which is really around ROI. Businesses and people get very busy and reducing bias is an incredibly important initiative for any organization and person that cares.

About these things I discussed in the intro, building culture, building great leaders, differentiating yourself, making better decisions, all these things you've just mentioned, but oftentimes it literally is the path of least resistance to ignore it. So, organizations and people don't do anything about it.

And so take a second to. Make the business case, Matthew for the actual ROI around changing your culture to reduce bias?

Matthew Cahill:

Well if it were only that simple Jeff to isolate it to that one variable, but if we go back to “like me” bias and mind you, there are at least 200 named cognitive biases, right?

Unconscious biases. With the advances in neuroscience, social psychology, and evolutionary biology, all these different fields are studying how our brains are creating these different types of unconscious bias. I think it's really important to name the type that we're looking to see the impact in the workplace.

So, we can go back and use “like me” bias since we were talking about that a moment ago. And “like me” bias I would argue if you have a small business and we're talking maybe 10 employees, 12 employees, maybe up to a 100, wherever the line is, it's never an absolute. And at some point, when you're starting out, I think more often than not having a high degree of “like me” bias.

Actually would probably be more productive, right? When you're surrounding yourself with people who you know and like, and trust, right? Who may all be very similar to you, you can wear a lot of different hats. You can do a lot of different things. You can perform the operations that are necessary for a small business to grow now.

The question becomes, is that model sustainable? And is it going to continue that same rate of growth? And the answer in most cases is no, it's not. You really have to begin diversifying at some point, now where that point is, there's not a hard and fast line that says here it is, but it is. Right. And it's going to be. So, when do you need to start to disrupt that type of bias is the better question to ask if you're a small business owner that has surrounded himself or herself with just other people like themselves.

Jeff Hunt:

That's so interesting to me because you've essentially normalized that this bias has taken place, but it's also a little bit of a provocative statement to say that if you're in a startup, it might be okay to have some of this like me bias going on for a period of time, it could actually benefit you.

But what I also heard you say is that as you grow and evolve, there needs to be a great level of intentionality and proactivity in shifting that so that you end up with better outcomes, whether it's better decisions, better ability to hire and attract the top talent, etcetera, right?

Matthew Cahill:

Absolutely. And the sooner it's done, usually the better, but there are always competing priorities. There are always different demands and usually diverse teams, they may take a little bit longer to come to a decision, right, because they're coming from different perspectives. And the fact is it just takes time to get through and come to that better decision.

But over time, it's been proven that it is indeed a better decision. Right? So I think it's never a singular element. And I think that's what our brains, one of the biases are of our brains as we like binary constructs, right. We like on-off this, that black, white, we like the singularity nature of that because that gives us the kind of certainty that our brain craves.

Create an opinion on something or they have a perception. And those, it gets right down to that level of neural wiring that we have to disrupt because those singular binary data points, definitions, attributions, they over time become problematic.

Jeff Hunt:

And wouldn't you say that if you do a good job with intentionally addressing bias as you grow and evolve and you do become more diverse and you have alternate viewpoints and you make better decisions?

As your company's goal is to increase belonging, which really has a tie into engagement and hopefully employee experience. Now we're getting into the ROI, which we mentioned earlier because the contrasting ROI on highly engaged workforce companies is significantly higher than on disengaged or companies that don't have high levels of belonging. I think it's in the 20 to 30% more profitable. Isn't that correct?

Matthew Cahill:

Yes, yes, and more, yes. I'm realizing this is audio-only as my head is I'm nodding the whole, everything that you're saying I'm wholeheartedly agreed with.

Topic 5. Five core types of bias, L.E.A.A.P. (16:50)

Jeff Hunt:

You explained to "like me" bias, what are the other types of bias? And I think you've identified.

I remember seeing somewhere that you have like five core types of bias identified. Can you take us through those?

Matthew Cahill:

Absolutely, and it forms the acronym LEAP, which is another way that our brains like to process and record information. So, L is “like me” bias, which is gravitating towards people who are like us that is the unconscious bias.

E is “egocentric” bias. So, the definition that I use is my views are clear and true to everyone. When we're operating from that mindset, this is very common with doctors, lawyers, people who have a high degree of success in any one subject area or domain. Egocentric bias is almost inevitable, because like most unconscious biases that serve you well until it doesn't.

And I think with an egocentric bias, the evidence that you're crossing the line and starting to experience the negative effects of egocentric bias is when you are coming across as intimidating, or you've stepped back and you wonder why aren't people doing what you want them to do.

I said it in the meeting, but you're not pausing to remember that people don't have that same level of expertise that you do, right? And even though you may have 30 years of intense, in-depth knowledge on molecular chemistry or accounting or whatever, it may be. It still only represents what you know, and not what's known in the universe.

Right? We tend to get so myopic and wrapped up in our own selves that we forget that A) to be a good communicator, you have to make sure that people are understanding what you're saying. You're not talking an acronym, ease that you are so familiar with, but nobody else is because they don't swim and live in your world, you know, day in and day out.

That's egocentric bias. The others. I have two A's. So I'm going to misspell LEAAP intentionally LEAAP. Availability bias, you touched on it earlier. It's just making decisions based on the most recent or available data. An example of that is confirmation bias. Right? We already have a preconceived idea. We just fill it with available information.

Anchoring bias is really fascinating. Anchoring bias is the basis of the retail industry. It's the basis of the power of a first impression. It's our brain's tendency to get anchored on a data point, a graph, or an image, and then everything else is anchored around that data point. So salespeople come in high, they have to come down a little bit, but it's anchored around that higher amount.

Proximity bias is an overvaluing of that, which is closest to us by time and space. And when you think about how many relationships are formed, well, pre-COVID in the workplace, just based on who sat in the same area or who you pass. Proximity bias is such a natural way of us overvaluing something that's closer to us.

When perhaps your best prospect might be somebody that's farthest away from you. It's often hard to maintain that same level of concentration, effort, energy when somebody is farther away and by time and space. And so proximity bias is fascinating. I could go on and on about it because of COVID. And in this virtual universe, proximity bias is dramatically different. But it’s also been very prominent for people in the last two years.

Jeff Hunt:

I brought up the example of the performance review in my intro. And of course, I run a company that's in the performance management space, but this is such a common problem wherein a review. There's not a comprehensive picture of the entire year.

So we may forget things that went really well or didn't go well earlier on. And so it can taint or bias or influence the overall review. Is that correct? And is that proximity bias?

Matthew Cahill:

It is. And it's a natural phenomenon that can be easily mitigated proximity bias, you know, is very, very powerful, but of the five it's also, I think the easiest to mitigate.

Because you can mitigate against that error happening simply by getting rid of the annual part of the performance review and getting into more iterative performance reviews that go on at a more frequent cadence. So, frequency mitigates against proximity bias to remove the time element.

Jeff Hunt:

Glad to hear that. Cause that's what we're we try to do is have continuous performance management, which is really about ongoing documented performance feedback, praiseworthy and constructive feedback.

I might have an example for you of anchoring bias. So that one actually is fascinating to me. I love sailing and I've had the opportunity to do quite a few open ocean passages. And I am remembering a time when I was out at sea and I was on watch. So everybody's asleep. It's very quiet sailing along.

No moon and there are clouds. So it was a little bit dark, hard to see pretty much anything. So I'm navigating by radar and I see a blip on the radar and it's a very small blip in the distance. It appeared it wasn't moving. And as I got closer, I couldn't understand why this vessel wasn't moving in, what it was.

It was still pretty small. And then as I approached it, All of a sudden it got larger and larger and larger on my radar screen. So now, now it looked like an enormous. It was like a cargo ship that my radar beam was only bouncing off of the front. And then as it turned, it all of a sudden filled my radar screen because it was bouncing off the entire side.

And so bottom line, I was able to maneuver around this vessel, but it had, I not been paying attention. I could have potentially put myself and my crew in danger. And so I'm wondering, is this a type of anchor bias? Because I was literally honing in on that decision that is based on my first data point or the image that was on my radar.

Matthew Cahill:

Absolutely. It's a great example. That's a great example. Too often we're all so busy. And in this case, you weren't busy, right? You were just focused on that, but more often than not anchoring bias comes in the form of advertisements, right? Like we get these powerful constructed images that get seared into our minds.

For no other reason, they've repeated over and over and over again through various devices. And that image, we get anchored on it. We cease to even question the validity or the credibility of it. And it's also that anchoring bias is the fuel or the foundation of an effective brand, right?

Like how much money does Nike spend to have that swoosh mean something in our minds? And it's due to anchoring bias.

Topic 6. How to measure bias? (24:50)

Jeff Hunt:

Let's talk about measurement for a minute because measuring growth in this area for any organization or person seems like it could be difficult, but also very important, you know, in business they say, if you don't measure it, it doesn't get done.

So what are the ways that we can measure bias for ourselves and our organizations to make sure we're moving in the right direction?

Matthew Cahill:

I’m so glad you asked that, because I'm finishing the second phase of my of a new program that I'm rolling out with some of my clients, and it's the belonging piece of from bias to belonging and coming up with an assessment to measure.

This very audacious and elusive idea of belonging, right? Like what does that even mean first? Right? It's very audacious to say that in a workplace you can satisfy this fundamental human need to belong somewhere. That is very bold. And so it's also very ethereal. And how do you measure it?

Well, I've come up with four elements of belonging and one of them is the culmination. The starting point is the culmination of all. The bias work leads into ideas of how you identify in the workplace, which isn't a singular binary construct. You're not just a white male, you are also maybe a father.

I think you shared that with me earlier. You're also, there's all these other layers and dimensions of your identity. So, identity is one way that you can be measured in the workplace. Agency is another way that you can be measured in the workplace. How comfortable and confident are you Jeff, in your role as the CEO of your business.

And the other people, how confident are they to be able to challenge authority in some cases if needed, right? How comfortable are they with their skills and abilities in the responsibilities that they have? The other is power, which is often overlooked and unaddressed, and yet it drives so much of the dynamics of any given meeting.

Just your presence can change the course of the conversation. And yet it's never really, I don't think a thought through explicitly more often than not. It's just taken for granted. And the final one is flow. There was a relatively famous psychologist Mikaela Shiffrin, that defined this and coined this term flow, which is that state of being where you are just in it.

Athletes get it when they're in the zone but, accountants can get it. You can get, I get, we all have had it. We've all experienced it, but that's the final measure for the cultural elements, which I think can be very abstract and elusive. And so this is a framework that gets placed into the organization so that it gives you ways to measure how your intentional architecting of your culture is being received by your employees.

Topic 7. Curiosity, defensiveness, and bias: is there a correlation? (28:23)

Jeff Hunt:

I love that. And I think it sounds like it's going to give organizations the ability to really also understand what's most important, which often is a challenge. For organizations and individuals, especially as they try to align their workforce around these areas.

So, I really appreciate what you're doing there. A couple more questions and I'm going to shift us to some lightning round questions, but I'd like to know about the relationship between curiosity and bias. And defensiveness and bias if there is a correlation. So can you speak to those two things?

Matthew Cahill:

Yeah, that goes back to what we mentioned earlier in this conversation around the language that's being used, there are ways to hold these kinds of sensitive conversations, and part of the way that you do this is to set some agreements upfront. And not just assume that everybody's coming into this conversation at the same level, at the same place of understanding, but really level setting before you begin and make sure that you're talking the same language that you're defining it.

And if you approach this with a curious mind, then it just becomes exciting. The accompanying feeling that drives the rest of the conversation is excitement. Without those emotional check-ins what happens is the emotions then just drive the rest of the reactions to the conversation. And we'd like to think that we're very logical, rational creatures, but we're not, most of the recent research around neuroscience is showing that this area of unconscious mental processing, it's already put your conscious mind into the car.

And as you drive down the road, before you even realize it. You've put the key in the ignition. If that makes any sense. You can't fight it. You have to really back up level set before you can actually get and get to the destination that you want to be.

Jeff Hunt:

It’s amazing how it permeates every aspect of our being as well, as much as we wouldn't like the emotion to influence and take over it does.

And I'm even thinking of the merger and acquisition space. I have some experience in that. People will try to remove the emotion from those decisions, but it's virtually impossible because if you're selling your company and you've invested and put your blood, sweat, and tears into it, you're going to probably think it's worth more than it actually is.

And it's going to be a difficult thing if you're acquiring the company it's the same thing. So on the other side, but would you say that's true?

Matthew Cahill:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And, and a much more effective strategy is to acknowledge and try to accurately pinpoint what the emotion is, as opposed to just trying to deny it and allowing it to continue shaping the rest of your decision.

A common example of this is how quick our brains are to find fault in whatever we didn't decide. Like when people move from the city to a suburb or they relocate or they take a new job our tendency is to only focus on the reasons for something, right?

The rationale for something, which is why I love the phrase that we're not rational creatures, we're rationalizing creatures. We're really good at rationalizing our preconceived ideas.

Topic 8. Lighting round questions (32:21)

Jeff Hunt:

All right. Let's shift to some lightning-round questions. My first one for you is what are you most grateful for Matthew?

Matthew Cahill:

My kids won't even hesitate on that. And then my kids and my wife. Oh my gosh, my family. So, definitely, I’m grateful for their health, I think like most, who are still surviving a global pandemic we can no longer take health for granted. And that includes mental health.

I think that's also a trend that's rising. Illnesses and mental health-related problems. But the inverse of that is the problems can be addressed earlier, as opposed to letting them escalate and fester and become truly problematic.

Health and family.

Jeff Hunt:

What is the most difficult leadership lesson you've learned over your career?

Matthew Cahill:

Even my best thinking may be implicitly flawed at some level.

Jeff Hunt:

You are drinking your own. Kool-Aid there my friend, I love that.

Matthew Cahill:

I like that. You said I'm drinking my own. Kool-Aid too. I'm not eating my own dog. I never liked that.

Jeff Hunt:

Yeah, exactly. Kooley it's much better than dog food

Matthew Cahill:

Champagne. Actually. I'm true to my own champagne.

Jeff Hunt:

All right. Who's one person you would interview if you could, living or not?

Matthew Cahill:

Oh, wow, Nelson Mandela jumps to mind, mother Teresa loved to sit down with mother Teresa.

Jeff Hunt:

Do you have any book recommendations or what's your top book recommendation?

Matthew Cahill:

Behave. By Robert Sapolsky, it's a book that is very dense, but I love it because it really unpacks the levels of complexity inside of human behavior. It takes a very biological approach and blows up so many preconceived ideas that many of us like to hang our hats on about what it means to be here.

You can look at his Ted talk. It's like a 14 minute Ted talk and it, and if that intrigued you, then get the book because the book just takes it and really unpacks those ideas that he presents in his Ted talk.

Jeff Hunt:

What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Matthew Cahill:

Don't give it. The wise don't need it and the ignorant won’t eat it. So don't give advice.

Jeff Hunt:

I love it. So, Matthew, if you had to synthesize the talk, what would you say is one of the most important takeaways to leave our listeners with today?

Matthew Cahill:

Oh, that's such a layup. If you have a brain, you have bias, don't be afraid of the biases that are inside of your brain, because they're already controlling most of what you do.

So, explore them, get to know them. You'll discover more about who you are and how you do what you do. And you can move from that space to a greater sense of belonging in the world.

Jeff Hunt:

And where can people find you?

Matthew Cahill:

The Percipio company. All one word.com, P E R C I P I O. company.com.

Jeff Hunt:

Matthew, thank you for expanding our horizons and perspectives today.

I really appreciated our conversation.

Matthew Cahill:

Same here.


Closing music jingle/sound effects

Jeff Hunt:

Thanks for listening to the show this week. We release new episodes every other Tuesday. Let me know what you thought of this episode by emailing humancapitalgoalspan.com. Human capital is produced by GoalSpan. Subscribe, wherever you get your podcasts. And please share this podcast with your colleagues, team, or friends. Thanks for being human kind.

Human Capital — 37. President, Percipio Consulting
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