The one bias to rule them all: Proximity Bias

Biases are good. Shoot me for saying that but deep inside, you know it’s true. The brain creates shortcuts (read biases/heuristics) for a reason. Some of these shortcuts are consciously wired in, some unconsciously learnt over time and some thrown in by the environment we grow up in. Are all biases good, no; but are we always able to discern which ones are and which aren’t? Again, no! While I won’t venture into a spiel on conscious and unconscious bias, (you already know enough) I will dedicate some valuable real estate to the one bias that is currently soaring above all the rest.

Ever since we started working from home, there’s been one bias that has been more prominent than the rest. If you take a close look at who held more information than others or was treated differently, what do you notice? Surprise surprise – it is likely someone who (1) met their boss more often either in person or virtually, (2) spoke up on calls and/or (3) kept their camera on. Why? Two words–proximity bias. Also knows as availability bias or exposure effect, it means if you are exposed to the same thing/people repeatedly; you are more likely to like them over others. Take, for example, that annoying song on the radio that played on repeat until it quickly found itself on the top of your most played list on Spotify or the boy next door that you fell in love with. A key element of the proximity bias is that one begins to like something more without any substantive reason, other than their familiarity with it.

If this bias has been around forever, why must we pay heed to it now? Because when everyone was in office, the playing field was more equal than it is when we’re hybrid. There was a time when managers believed an employee was at work only if they ‘saw’ them working. This is the same belief that led companies to install cameras and software on systems tracking screen time and mouse movement. The past two years has eased some of that apprehension but it hasn’t disappeared. Proximity bias is wired into the human brain and will take intentional effort to overcome.

As we transition into the next phase of work life, those with more face time are likely to receive more information, better career opportunities, and consequently better pay. The impact of doing so is far-reaching. Let’s take gender pay gap for example. It is estimated that women or those with caregiving responsibility are more likely to take up the option to work remotely, further exacerbating the gender pay gap especially if pay differs with location.  

Therefore, the question that looms before us is this–is there a way to beat the bias outside of educating employees and constant reminders? While, these two are strong solutions (you can’t address what you don’t know), we need more. Here are some other ways to supplement the effort to combat proximity bias.

Intentional reach out: You can’t be the victim of proximity bias if you interact with everyone equally. While this sounds ridiculous at first, if you are a manager, it is the best way to ensure you don’t unconsciously favor one team member over the other. Start by reflecting on who you spoke to that week and how often. Then plan to reach out to anyone you might have missed. As a leader, you could put a note in your diary reminding you to contact the person. Making the connection appear ad hoc to them might make the conversation feel more authentic than a scheduled catch up.

Invisible opinions first: We seek opinions from those we interact with often because we receive those opinions faster. I have defaulted to asking for quick reviews from those I am hopping on a call with or meeting at an office. However, there are many colleagues out there who’re likely better feedback providers but don’t feature in my feedback provider list. Ask for opinions of those you see less first.

Run the numbers: Data can bust most biases. When faced with deciding on who to select for a development program, a stretch project and so on, take time to decide. Our gut-based, immediate decisions are always riddled with biases. When you distance yourself from the decision and mull over evidence, decisions change. So, run the numbers and take longer to make decisions that impact careers.

Transparency & information democracy: Make conscious effort to share the information that you share with one, with everyone. When you share something with one person, think about why are you not sharing this with everyone. Is it because putting it down in writing can get you into trouble or is it because the person was in the same physical or virtual room? Practice over indexing on information sharing. The adage holds true: there is no such thing as too much information.

Call it out: Lastly, when you observe proximity bias, call it out. Call it out even if you aren’t sure of what you are witnessing. Let the other person explain why it isn’t proximity bias. Explaining it to you will help them re-evaluate their decision even if it is the right one. The more often you call it out, the more often you’ll make them pause and thereby work on eliminating the bias.

None of this is easy work; neither is it quick. It is because the process is painstakingly slow that it is so widespread. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be witnessing it as often. However, biases can be beaten. Just stick through it and watch yourself create a more inclusive space.

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