The FAI and Unconscious Bias
“It is very difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I would like to make it clear from the off that I have very little knowledge of sport. As a family we were not sporty. In fact, we were the opposite of sporty. Even today were it not for my children and sports mad husband, sport would exist in a parallel universe. To put it in context years ago when I was in college visiting a friend in Kilkenny her sister said she was going to Croke Park. “oh” I asked innocently, “Is that in Dublin?”. Apparently they still talk about that one.
But I do know about Unconscious Bias and I am fascinated by organisations, how they function, the impact of culture and how an organisation can sometimes eat itself from the inside out until it is only a husk of its former self. The FAI strikes me as a prime example of an organisation which was, amongst other things, rife with unconscious bias and suffering from a striking lack of diversity of thought, all of which seems to be more obvious now that we are watching a failing organisation in its final death throes.
For those who know even less about sport then me, the FAI is currently burdened with 62 million Euro of liabilities and requires a bail out of 18 million by January 25th to avoid defaulting on their next pay run.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term “Unconscious Bias” it refers to a bias that happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations. It is influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
It is one of the reasons organisations can struggle to be diverse and inclusive.
For an organisation like the FAI it is clear there were a number of biases in place.
First up, Affinity Bias. This is our tendency to warm to someone like ourselves.
It is what happens when you are making small talk with someone and then suddenly discover you went to the same school or lived on the same street. Immediately you pick up in interest and warm to them.
Looking at the board of the FAI, it is clear they shared an affinity for football. Of course, this in itself is no bad thing. Shared passion can drive an organisation forward and energise people. However, affinity bias can obscure us from seeing people clearly. If you have an affinity with someone you can assume you share similar values and beliefs. You can unjustifiably attribute good intentions and behaviours to them. Particularly when one of those people has a strong Halo Effect.
The Halo Effect is when we let one good quality about someone influence our judgement about them as a whole. For example, if someone appears in an expensive suit, we may unconsciously make assumptions about their income or education levels. We may be impressed by them without them even saying a word!
The Halo Effect around John Delaney would have been strong. He had wealth, power, influence and no doubt a certain amount of charisma. He would have been a powerful member of the “In Group”. To members of the organisation who wanted to progress up the ladder it would have been important to mimic some of his behaviour and to please the person who was essentially the “top dog”. As FAI president John Conway put it himself;
“For asking questions, for voicing disagreements there were consequences for them. That was all poor reflection on the board, and a really bad culture.”
All of this feeds into Institutional Bias. Or more simply put, “this is the way we do things around here”. There comes a point in an organisation when you no longer need to state these are the rules. People instinctively know and understand what pleases their bosses and act accordingly. In the case of the FAI they would have known without it ever being said that there was no desire to hire a specialist in Corporate Governance, someone who had no background in football or could in any way challenge the status quo. If such a person would have been hired, I imagine they would have been very young and lacking in status or power so they could easily be undermined. For example. that person could have been hired on a short fixed term contract to ensure they were kept on a short leash.
But the bias which I think is most striking across the FAI board of management is Similarity Bias. This is the natural tendency to surround ourselves with people like us. It is easy to look at the fact that the board is all male and state that this is why they lacked diversity. But that isn’t it. The reality is if they had hired women with a similar background and outlook to themselves they would still have suffered from Similarity Bias. They needed to hire people who did not have the same background as themselves and who looked at the world differently and perhaps more objectively. Imagine for example they hired a Corporate Governance Officer who did not share their cultural background or had a shared passion for football. Let’s imagine this person was a woman. Let’s call this fictional woman Saanvi. Let’s assume she is a recent arrival to this country and therefore does not understand the cultural references which may impact on Halo Effect. Let’s also assume Saanvi has a strong professional and educational background. Finally, our mythical Saanvi also needs to believe she has other options outside this organisation professionally, that she can easily move on if this does not work out. Saanvi is the ideal kind of person to ask questions and disrupt the peace. She would provide diversity of thought and potentially shake up an organisation like the FAI.
The reality is whilst Saanvi may have been one of the candidates along the interview process she would never have been offered the job. The Institutional Bias in place would have questioned her “cultural fit”. Cultural fit can be a handy way of weeding out people we think are too different from us or challenge us in a way which makes us uncomfortable. At some stage at the interview process the Board of Management would have asked themselves the questions, “Do I want to have a pint with this person?” and the answer would have been an emphatic no. I have no doubt that the FAI board had legendary nights out. They would have all gotten on really, really well. Shared background, shared passions and an institution built on not asking the difficult questions. I am also quite sure if training in Unconscious Bias or consulting in the area of Diversity & Inclusion had been suggested to the Board of the FAI it would have been dismissed out of hand as a load of nonsense. It is easy to mock anything which challenges your own way of thinking that you may be instinctively scared by. But of course, the FAI needed diversity of thought then and it needs it even more today. It will be interesting to see what the next chapter of the FAI brings. Hopefully for all the football fans out there it won’t be more of the same.