How to Manage your Unconscious Bias

We all bring unconscious bias into the workplace. These learned stereotypes are automatic and unintentional. They are part of your belief system and will affect your behaviour on a daily basis. Just because they are triggered without your knowledge does not make it right or even an excuse for bad decisions. For example, if you did not appoint someone because of their surname, gender, sexual orientation etc. it certainly is not favourable for the organisation or the individuals concerned. Your brain is predetermined to certain predispositions in order to survive. Unconscious thinking is effortless and swift. It is activated in your brain long before your explicit system can kick in and override it. However this is no excuse.

There are many types of unconscious bias, and you are most likely guilty of at least some of them. Here are a few:

Affinity Bias

When you like people that are like yourself. This, for example, might include having an affinity for someone who went to the same university as you, grew up in the same town, is of the same background etc.

Conformity Bias

When you tend to listen more to information that already conforms to our preconceived notions. You often see this in discussions around big issues like climate change; you see this daily when two people walk away from the same discussion with different interpretations of the same concept.

Halo Effect

You see one great thing about someone and let that influence every other judgement about that person. For example, this could take place in the recruitment process – looking at a particular university and seeing everything else about that candidate glow as a result of this “great” university.

Horns Effect

The opposite of the halo effect. Your judgment is clouded because someone, for example, might have been late once to a meeting or said something that you didn’t agree with.

Perception Bias

Believing one thing about a group of people based on stereotypes or assumptions. For example “all Asians drive badly.” There is evidence that shows, although people believe they make impartial judgement, they are often influenced by perception bias.

There are many more types of biases, but these few hopefully reminded you of decisions you made in the last week based on these biases.

Simply knowing you are bias will not automatically alert you to take any different action.

For exactly all of these reasons you need a strategy. The more you practice coming up with alternatives the easier it becomes. Not keeping your biases in check, will end up in you solving the wrong problems and creating homogeneous teams. How can you minimise the impact of these cognitive biases and minimise their negative effect on innovation?

Ask yourself.

Where is there unconscious bias in my company or what biases do I hold as an individual — and what is the impact of it?

Pay particular attention when you are tired. When we are tired we revert back to our automatic thinking patterns and unless you have a practiced strategy prior to this time, you easily revert back to your ‘comfortable, habitual’ way of thinking.

To avoid bias, the above question may need answering by a 360 review. Here are five tips to manage bias:

  1. Get out of Denial!
    • If you want to manage your biases, you first need to admit to them. It’s harder than you may think, but ask yourself: What are my biases? How do they impact my decisions? What actions can I put in place to manage them?
  2. Start at the top
    1. There is no doubt that it is easier to drive change from the top. This is not only a verbal agreement, but needs to be followed by measurable actions, policies, and norms. Let everyone reveal their perceptions of your company’s diversity and inclusion strategies in a safe environment. You may be surprised by the outcome!
  3. Get to the top
    1. I often see middle managers stuck to influence and disillusioned to what they may influence. Come up with a strategy, make a suggestion to your superior and run with it (Else you’ll one day inherit a culture much harder to change so start addressing it now).
  4. Focus on Individuals & Evidence
    1. Rather than generalising the team, build individual relations. Yes – this takes time, but you’ll see the returns it yields in terms of productivity and motivated staff.
  5. Create Accountability
    1. Unless you can measure it and continuously check in, you’ll easily fall back into old patterns and behaviour. Awareness alone is simply not enough to create change.