Overcoming Survivor Bias in the Pursuit of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Overcoming Survivor Bias in the Pursuit of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

During World War II, mathematician and statistician Abraham Wald was given a perplexing problem: how best to armor military aircraft to protect them from enemy fire. The aircraft returning from battle were thoroughly inspected, with data gathered on where they’d been hit by bullets, marked by red dots on diagrams. The logical solution would seem to be to reinforce the areas where most of these dots were clustered. But Wald had a critical insight that challenged this seemingly logical approach.

Fictional depiction of bullet holes on an an aircraft diagram

In his analysis, Wald realized that the conventional wisdom was flawed. The data was only gathered from the planes that returned from battle—the survivors. These planes had been hit in many places and still managed to fly home. The aircraft that had been shot down, those that had not survived, were absent from the dataset. Wald argued that the undamaged areas on the survivor planes—the places without red dots—were in fact the most vulnerable. These were likely the areas hit on the planes that didn’t make it back. His insights led to changes in aircraft armor, shifting from an intuitive but flawed approach to one based on a fuller understanding of the data, thereby overcoming what we now call “survivor bias.”

Today, the concept of survivor bias has transcended the realm of military aviation and wartime strategies, finding its way into our workplaces, particularly when it comes to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

Survivor bias is a cognitive bias that can skew perceptions of reality by focusing on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility. In a DEI context, survivor bias could manifest itself when organizations consider the success of their DEI efforts solely by focusing on employees who have thrived within the company culture and moved up the ladder.

Much like the bullet-ridden planes that made it back, these successful individuals are the ‘visible’ data. They are the evidence that, at first glance, indicates the organization’s DEI strategies are working. However, just as Wald noted, focusing only on the ‘survivors’ could ignore potentially crucial information—the employees who left, who didn’t fit into the culture, who didn’t climb the corporate ladder, or who never even considered applying to the organization in the first place because they perceived a lack of inclusivity.

So how do we tackle survivor bias in our DEI initiatives?

Acknowledge the Bias

The first step is acknowledging that survivor bias exists and can distort our evaluation of DEI efforts. It is only then that we can start seeing the gaps in our data and begin to understand the full story.

Actively Seek Out Invisible Data

To overcome survivor bias, we must do what Wald did: seek out the information that isn’t immediately visible. This means reaching out to the employees who left the company, conducting exit interviews, and maintaining open lines of communication. It’s important to listen and give weight to the experiences and feedback of those who aren’t traditionally heard within the organization.

Promote a Culture of Inclusion and Belonging

Inclusive leadership and fostering a culture where everyone feels they belong is crucial in combating survivor bias. Leaders should be actively involved in the DEI conversation, encourage dialogue about differences, and create an environment where diverse voices are heard and valued. This will promote diversity of thought and a culture of inclusivity, where every employee feels seen, heard, and validated.

Iterate on DEI Strategies

Lastly, it’s important to iterate and improve upon DEI strategies based on all available data, including the perspectives of those who didn’t ‘survive’. This might require substantial changes in how an organization operates, from recruitment and hiring to promotion policies.

Just as Wald’s shift in perspective helped save countless planes and pilots during World War II, so too can a shift in perspective on DEI save organizations from the pitfalls of survivor bias. By recognizing and addressing survivor bias, organizations can develop a more holistic and effective approach to DEI, one that truly fosters an inclusive environment where everyone has the opportunity to ‘survive’ and thrive.