Unconscious Bias

I was a nurse originally, and now I work in leadership development. The other day I was introducing a program for women leaders and I made the comment that I look forward to the day when we move from defining gender within a profession. By this I mean the day when we don’t define male nurses as male nurses, and female CEO’s as female CEO’s.

Unconscious bias is not intentional, nor is it malicious – it is the beliefs and behaviours that are manifest through the inculcation of habits and familiarity of our history and experience, our upbringing and our acceptance of what we observe. It is an automatic response to familiar situations with little thought to the assumptions that underpin them.

We are hardwired for survival and therefore our brain categories by same and difference.   Same is safe, likeable, valuable and competent.  Difference is potentially threatening and our mind makes quick unconscious decisions to keep us safe, “before we even think about it”.

Unconscious bias is exactly that – unconscious. We don’t notice it, see it, or recognise it unless it is pointed out to us in some conscious way.  Some examples of unconscious bias are:

  • Favouring people like ourselves (like attracts like)
  • Appointing people who are familiar and trusted
  • Soliciting advice from people who we know will provide a particular perspective that supports our perspective
  • Allocating work to those we know have delivered before
  • Inviting the same people to after work drinks
  • Pulling a sports team together of people we consider young and fit enough.
  • Making assumptions on anything…

When we act or make decisions informed from our unconscious biases we automatically limit how we view the world and we can be missing huge opportunities. We also may be:

  • Devaluing the contributions that others might make
  • Making decisions that result in sub-optimal outcomes
  • Exclude some people from personal and professional growth
  • Focus on what we expect to see and miss important and relevant information
  • Making implicit assumptions about people and situations without scrutiny
  • Failing to take immediate action and increasing suffering (think Hurricane Katrina)
  • Reinforcing limits on our thinking, reducing creativity an innovation and potentially better outcomes
  • Perpetuating habits that are not useful

If people are aware of their hidden biases they can monitor and begin to ameliorate hidden attitudes before they are expressed in behaviour. This can include being conscious of our language, body language and reflecting to consider the stigmatism that target groups might feel.

Seven steps to identify and address unconscious bias:

  1. Recognise that we all have biases
  2. Identify what those biases are
  3. Dissect your biases
  4. Decide which of your biases you will address first
  5. Look for common interest groups (stereotyping)
  6. Get rid of your biases by seeking to understand their perspective
  7. Be mindful of bias kickback.

There are a number of strategies to address unconscious bias in the workplace:

Anonymous staff surveys can be a great start to begin to surface unconscious bias in the workplace.

Education programs that support people to become aware of their biases and create a desire to change are a great start too.

Fostering conscious conversations that reframe situations using an appreciative inquiry approach, focusing on fair treatment and inclusivity (rather than discrimination) support the change.

Reviewing every aspect of the employment cycle for hidden biases – this includes the screening of resumes, interviews, assignment processes, mentoring programs, performance evaluation, promotion and termination.

An understanding of unconscious bias is an invitation to a new, more inclusive level of engagement about diversity issues in the workplace. It requires awareness raising, introspection, humility, and compassion.  The key to change is communication and a willingness to act.

To this end, we must remain open minded, curious and willing to learn.

Posted in On Leadership