Affinity Bias: What It Is, How it Can Affect You, And How To Avoid It

Affinity bias: preferring similar people unintentionally limits diverse team potential, hindering fresh perspectives and growth


Chris Kernaghan

A diverse team sits at the table, working on a project

Do you remember that climactic scene from Ghostbusters 2, when the Manhattan Museum of Art is cocooned in pink impenetrable slime? Inside, a battle takes place between the Ghostbusters and Vigo the Carpathian, who eventually succumbs to the goodwill of all those singing Auld Lang Syne outside.

Oh, and about 100 gallons of positively charged slime.

But the point is, the positivity is just too much, and Vigo fades into obscurity. For me, it's a reminder that addressing negativity is often the best way to tackle it.

Of course, negativity will never go away entirely, but by not giving it space to grow in the first place, we can manage it better. But what if we treated our biases in the same way? What if we didn't give our biases space to grow in the first place? It's possible, but first, we need to acknowledge that we are biased.

Did you know that even if you think you're treating everyone fairly at work, you might actually have some biases without realising it? It's pretty crazy, right? I'm not saying these biases are mean or define who you are, but it's worth acknowledging potential biases you don't know about.

Ones that can affect your ability to build a diverse team, potentially hinder the emergence of fresh perspectives and impede your business without you even knowing it.

That's why I wanted to talk about something fascinating called "affinity bias", and how you can avoid it as a founder, and in the workplace in general.

Unpacking Affinity Bias: A Natural Tendency

Affinity bias is a cognitive bias deeply ingrained within human nature. It's the subconscious preference for individuals who share certain characteristics, backgrounds, or interests similar to our own. Imagine a scenario where you're a founder, with a unique set of experiences and preferences, and you've set out to build a team.

Unintentionally, you might gravitate towards candidates who remind you of yourself, creating an environment that feels comfortable and familiar.

This way of thinking isn't meant to be mean-spirited.

It's just our brains trying to make things easier, placing us somewhere within the boundaries of our comfort zone.

Our brains like finding patterns and making connections. When we have to pick team members, which can be a tough decision, our brains try to find a faster way. This often makes us prefer people who are a bit like us or who've been through similar things.

The Impact on Building Diverse Teams

When it comes to hiring a diverse group of people, having good intentions doesn't always lead to the right results. What does that mean? Well, sometimes, even if founders mean well, they might accidentally reject qualified candidates from backgrounds that are often overlooked, because of biases they're not aware of. Thankfully, there are ways to make things better, and fairer.

First, it's important to know that we have a tendency to gravitate towards people who are similar to us. Because of this, it's a good idea for founders (or members of the hiring team) to learn about the experiences of people who are not often heard at work. 

Always, always ask yourself: "Am I being biased here? Is there the potential for others to be biased?"

Pro-tip: Before talking to others, try to make up your own mind about a candidate so you're not influenced by what everyone else thinks. Only when you've made up your own mind, liaise with other members of the hiring team to come to a fair and transparent conclusion.

Picture this scenario: Imagine swapping a candidate from an underrepresented background with a more typical one you'd usually hire. Would you still feel the same way? For example, if a woman of colour candidate talks passionately and you hesitate because you're unsure, would you feel like this if a white man talked the same way?

Probably not. Always question yourself.

For a founder aiming to build a thriving and innovative business, the influence of affinity bias can be both subtle and profound. At its core, building a diverse team means bringing together individuals with distinct backgrounds, perspectives, and skills. Diversity fosters creativity, enhances problem-solving, and encourages a wide range of ideas, ultimately driving a business forward.

However, affinity bias can inadvertently undermine these aspirations. When a founder leans towards hiring or partnering with individuals who resonate with their own background, they might miss out on the opportunity to include diverse voices.

This results in a team that lacks varied perspectives, potentially leading to groupthink – a phenomenon where a team's collective decisions are heavily influenced by a shared perspective.

The Ripple Effect: Consequences of Unchecked Bias

The consequences of affinity bias extend beyond just who the team is made up of. A bias like this can ripple throughout a business, affecting areas such as employee morale, innovation, and even the company's reputation. How? Let's delve into some of these effects:

  1. Stifling Innovation: Homogeneous teams tend to have limited viewpoints, which can hinder the generation of innovative ideas. Diverse teams, on the other hand, pool together different ways of thinking and unique experiences, resulting in creative solutions to complex problems. Affinity bias stifles this diversity, leading to a lack of novel perspectives and potentially stagnant innovation.
  2. Reducing Employee Engagement: When employees from underrepresented backgrounds feel their voices are not heard or valued, their engagement and motivation can suffer. This can create a toxic work environment where certain individuals feel disconnected and unappreciated. As a result, employee turnover rates might rise, impacting the overall stability of the business.
  3. Inclusive Reputation Matters: In today's interconnected world, a business's reputation for inclusivity and diversity can influence its brand perception. Companies that actively work to foster diversity often attract a wider customer base and are seen as more socially responsible. Conversely, those perceived as harbouring bias might face backlash, damaging their image and potential market reach.

Mitigating Affinity Bias: Practical Steps

Recognising and mitigating affinity bias is an essential step toward building a thriving and diverse team. Here are some practical strategies that founders can employ:

  1. Education and Awareness: Founders should educate themselves and their teams about affinity bias and its potential impact. By understanding the mechanics of bias, individuals can actively work to counteract its effects.
  2. Structured Hiring and Promotion Processes: Implementing structured and standardised processes for hiring, promotions, and partnerships can help minimise the influence of bias. Clear criteria and well-defined evaluation metrics ensure that decisions are based on skills, experience, and qualifications rather than personal preferences.
  3. Diverse Interview Panels: When conducting interviews, founders can include diverse team members in the interview panel. This creates a more varied perspective and helps reduce the likelihood of biased decisions.
  4. Implicit Bias Training: Engaging in training that addresses implicit biases can be highly effective in raising awareness and promoting unbiased decision-making. These programs offer tools and techniques to recognise and challenge one's own biases.
  5. Data-Driven Decision-Making: Incorporate data and analytics into the decision-making process. Objectively comparing candidates' qualifications and skills can help override unconscious biases.
  6. Building a Culture of Inclusivity: Foster an organisational culture that values and celebrates diversity. When inclusivity becomes a core value, it naturally counters the effects of affinity bias.

Embracing Diversity for Long-Term Success

This isn't just an opinion - it's fact. When you bring together people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, it becomes harder for affinity bias to take hold.

A diverse team acts like a reality check against bias. When you're surrounded by individuals with different life stories, you're constantly exposed to new ideas and viewpoints. This exposure helps challenge any unconscious biases that might have crept in. It's like having a bunch of different mirrors reflecting back various angles of reality.

This constant interaction prompts you to question assumptions and see situations from multiple angles. So, the diverse team becomes a dynamic force that actively counteracts the pull of affinity bias, ensuring that decisions are fair, balanced, and well-considered.

Building a diverse team requires deliberate effort and an ongoing commitment to challenging biases. By understanding the dynamics of affinity bias and its potential impact on team composition, founders can take proactive steps to create an inclusive environment that thrives on a variety of perspectives. In doing so, they unlock the door to innovation, creativity, and long-term business success.

Acknowledging and addressing affinity bias isn't just a social responsibility – it's a strategic imperative. By fostering diversity and embracing the power of varied perspectives, founders can navigate the challenges of today's business world with greater resilience, adaptability, and forward-thinking vision.

Be the hero in your own Holywood movie. Sure, you don't have 100 gallons of positively charged slime, but what you do have is the power to create diversity within your team, and that's incredibly valuable.

About The Author

A diverse team sits at the table, working on a project
Chris Kernaghan

By day, Chris works as a UX Designer, crafting easy-to-use interfaces and ensuring companies focus on what users need. At night, he runs We Are Founders, a platform where founders share inspirational journeys.


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