Tackling Unconscious Bias

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

According to wikipedia - Unconscious (or implicit) biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply engrained, universal, and able to influence behavior.

Deloitte’s 2019 State of Inclusion survey found that many of today’s professionals are experiencing and witnessing bias on a regular basis, and it’s impacting how they show up and perform at work.

The US-based study found that nearly eight in 10 professionals believe their company fosters an inclusive culture and provides opportunities to connect with others from diverse backgrounds. Yet 64% of them admitted feeling that they either experienced and/or witnessed bias in the workplace within the last 12 months.

Most of these professionals (83%) say that it was indirect or subtle – which is often framed as a micro-aggression.

Types of unconscious bias

Without realising it, we are probably all guilty of one or more unconscious bias. Our brains are wired towards patterns and similarity, while difference is harder to accommodate. Where there is bias (conscious or unconscious) in the workplace, we continue to recruit, promote, allocate work, and manage performance with filters on our thinking. We cannot change what we do not see or acknowledge, but we can change conscious attitudes and beliefs.

There are many types of unconscious bias, here are some of the main biases that can affect workplaces:

Affinity bias - the tendency to 'warm up' to people who are like yourself

Halo effect - the tendency to think that everything about a person is good simply because you like them

Perception bias - the tendency to believe one thing about a group of people based on stereotypes and assumptions, making it impossible to be objective about individuals

Confirmation bias - the tendency to seek to confirm your pre-existing ideas and assumptions about a group of people

Group think - the tendency to try too hard to fit into an existing culture, mimicking others and holding back thoughts or opinions, resulting in the loss of identity and lost creativity and innovation

I'm sure if you look hard enough you will recognise these in yourself and others.

There is a lot of 'training' our there for addressing unconscious bias but the jury is out as to whether or not it actually helps. So what can you do?

1. Recognise your unconscious biases

What decisions have you made regarding people without really giving it a second thought? Question why you made the decision that you did.

For example, maybe you believe that men and women are equally capable of leading, but you think that men lack the ability to show empathy the way that women do so you chose a woman for a role that you knew would require empathy. While this might not sound like a negative, decisions should be based on who is the right person for the role, not who is the gender you perceive to be most capable.

Harvard University has carried out research into unconscious bias and has released the Implicit Association Test to help people identify their biases.

2. Focus on people

Rather than thinking about the characteristics of someone's ethnicity, gender or class background, focus on them as an individual. What is the evidence you have?

3. Increase exposure to biases

Once you've identified what your biases are try exposing yourself to them more regularly. Try to prove your biases wrong. Seek out examples that are the opposite to your bias.

Using the example of men being better at making decisions faster than women, look for cases where women have shown speed in decision making and been highly successful as a result. This will start to challenge your bias.

4. Encourage your leadership team to understand the impact unconscious bias has in the workplace and the importance of interrupting it. Get leaders to complete the Harvard Implicit Assessment Test and discuss their results.