The Surgeon’s Dilemma – a test for unconscious bias

Here’s a challenge for you.

A father and his son are involved in a horrific car crash and the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating theatre, the surgeon pulled away and said: “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son”.

How can this be?

Have you worked it out yet? How long did it take?

This story – called the surgeon’s dilemma – is often used to demonstrate the way that unconscious bias works. Of course, the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

If you didn’t come up with this answer, don’t worry you are not alone. It seems less than half of those who try to solve the surgeon’s dilemma struggle, but that’s the point of the riddle, to unearth our own biases and show that we all have biases but they do not have to be reflected in our behaviour. This is the sneaky nature of unconscious bias, we are not aware that we have them and this in itself makes it harder to identify such biases and then to do something about them.   

But all is not lost.  We can do something about our biases, if we are motivated to do so. Many organisations engage in unconscious bias training, more often targeted at increasing diversity representation at all levels in the organisation. While such training does bring about change in thinking and promotes diversity of thought, there are things we can do as individuals to address our own biases.

  • The first is to be aware of the language we use. While there may be a few among us who now roll their eyes and think “we are becoming too PC as a society”, think about your language and how powerful a tool it is. Can you spot the biases in these sentences?
  • Any applicant for the position of fireman must submit a medical report signed by his physician.
  • Despite her cerebral palsy, Cheryl Kama was promoted to office manager.
  • Let’s try harder to meet our older customers’ demands for personalized service.
  • Ask yourself questions. This is an effective way to not only gain an insight but to lessen the grip the bias has on you. Whenever the thought or bias arises, you can ask yourself: “Is this bias of mine fair, relevant or even worthy of having?”
  • When making hiring or promotional decisions appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ who will challenge thought processes and bring the decision making process out into the conscious mind.
  • If you are in the position to do so, put in place the structures and procedures in your organisation that deal with these biases. This can include targets, accountability for such, expert networking for women and minority groups, all designed to have more social interaction with influential people. Structures can, eventually, lead to behaviour and mind set changes.

Overall thought, be aware of the potential ‘faddishness’ of unconscious bias. About 15 years ago we saw the rise in popularity of Emotional Intelligence. Every client wanted to test for this in their staff. This was then replaced by Learning Agility and an increase in understanding who are the more agile thinkers in an organisation. While EI was not as sexy anymore, it never becomes less important. And this is the same with unconscious bias. While there may be an increase in training to understand and combat this, when it moves from the public eye, replaced by the next ‘fad’, it will not become any less relevant to who we are and how we conduct our selves in life and at work.

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Comment by Susan Rochester on April 19, 2013 at 10:31

Thanks for a great article, Prue. Back in the 1980's (before I worked in HR), I was catching a flight from Sydney to Melbourne on my first day in a new job. I was told I'd be sitting next to my new boss (also starting that day). To my surprise, my new boss was a woman. I've been very careful never fall into that trap again!

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