Survivor Bias In Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Abraham Wald, a mathematician and statistician known for his work during World War II, highlighted the impact of survivor bias on decision-making through his analysis of military data. Wald was tasked with determining how to best protect military planes from enemy fire, and he was presented with data on planes that had returned from battle with bullet holes in various locations (The attached image is a fictitious representation of this data, with bullet holes indicated by red dots).
The conventional wisdom at the time was to reinforce the areas of the planes that had been hit the most, as these were deemed the most vulnerable. However, Wald realized that this approach was flawed because it only considered the planes that had survived and returned from battle, ignoring the planes that had received critical damage and never returned. He argued that it was these areas of the planes (The areas without red dots) that were actually the most vulnerable (Rosenbaum, W. (2018). The odds against us. New York, NY: Random House).
This example illustrates the impact of survivor bias on decision-making, as the conventional wisdom was based on a skewed perception of the data. Similarly, in organizations, perceptions of successful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts can be influenced by survivor bias. If an organization implements a diversity and inclusion program and only focuses on the individuals or groups who have experienced success because of the program, they may conclude that the program is effective while ignoring the individuals or groups who have not benefited from the program or those who may have even faced negative consequences because of it.
Organizations and their Leaders must be proactive in combating their own survivor bias by seeking out diverse perspectives, engaging in continuous learning and self-reflection, and seeking feedback from employees, especially non survivors. They should strive to achieve inclusive hiring and promotion behaviors, a safe and inclusive work culture, and an active ongoing and open dialogue across their whole organization. They should ask, who never sought out my organization for employment? Who didn’t stick around once they experienced our culture? Who is quietly out of sight because they don’t feel safe to be seen?
By actively seeking out and considering the experiences and perspectives of all employees, organizations can more accurately assess the effectiveness of their diversity and inclusion efforts and make informed decisions about how to best support and promote diversity in the workplace. Seek out where critical hits are happening and reinforce those groups and individuals who are vulnerable. By being mindful of our own biases and making a conscious effort to challenge and overcome them your organization can ensure that more planes have a successful mission and make it back, i.e. your mission succeeds because your people are thriving.