As we start to move more confidently through the world of remote and hybrid working, new issues are emerging all the time. One of these is proximity bias. This is the tendency that we all have to favour people—and objects and ideas—that are closest to us. This is a natural human tendency, but it can also be quite dangerous in the workplace for several different reasons. It is worth understanding more about this bias, so that you can avoid it.
Identifying proximity bias
Proximity bias can manifest in different ways, with different types of proximity.
Perhaps the most obvious is our tendency to favour people who are similar to us: a kind of cognitive proximity. It is easier to build rapport with people who share similar backgrounds and ways of thinking, because we don’t have to explain ourselves so much. This can be dangerous because it leads to psychological phenomena such as reinforcement and confirmation, where ideas are confirmed as ‘right’ because those around us agree with them. A linked form of proximity is what we might call ‘emotional proximity’, where we favour people who are more important to us or those we love. This leads to practices like nepotism.
Both these forms of proximity tend to reduce diversity in a workplace. They therefore lead to narrower thinking, and less openness to new ideas. This is one reason why diverse teams tend to perform better—because greater diversity brings a wider range of ideas.
Another type of proximity that is especially important in hybrid working is physical proximity. A recent survey found that around two-thirds of senior leaders said that proximity bias against remote workers definitely existed. For example, 67% said that remote workers were more replaceable than on-site workers. Just under half said that they sometimes forgot about remote workers when assigning tasks. There is growing evidence that this can hold back the careers of remote workers. It also needs real action to overcome it if hybrid working is to be a real choice.
Proximity bias of the mind
There is also another form of proximity bias, and that is around ideas. It is also linked to social media. The issue is that social media tends to reinforce proximity bias, especially the cognitive form. This is partly the result of algorithms that choose what we see, but also our own preferences. We tend to read and interact more with posts and people that we agree with, or whose views support ours. The more we interact with those posts, the more the social media algorithms show us similar posts, reinforcing our bias.
Fortunately, social media can also hold the remedy to avoiding proximity bias. You can use it to connect with people across the world, and with very different backgrounds and ideas to you. Take time to build your social media network and feed to include new people, not just your friends and ‘the obvious suspects’ in your field. It is also helpful to engage with people who have different ideas and opinions from yours, and try to understand their views.
This is very much a matter of deliberately opening your mind to new people and ideas. Joining online communities and attending virtual events will also expose you to new ideas and perspectives. If you then choose to share diverse content, with lots of different ideas, you will find that new people engage with you, too.
Proximity bias and thought leadership
Being aware of proximity bias, and avoiding it, is particularly important for thought leaders, and those who aspire to that status. We have touched on this before, for example in thinking about why you should be on Twitter if your target audience is not. The real issue is that proximity bias can limit the range of ideas and perspectives that are discussed and shared. Thought leaders are experts in their field. However, even they—or perhaps especially they—can fall prey to being less open to other ideas.
This can be a real problem if the acknowledged experts in a field are only interacting with each other, and not admitting new ideas. Fields and topics atrophy if they are not developed in new ways. Thought leaders actively need to seek out new ideas and perspectives to keep their own views and topics fresh. This also means that they can play a key role in promoting a more diverse and inclusive set of conversations. A broader understanding of the world benefits all of us.