What is unconscious bias?
A technical definition is Inclinations, hidden deep in the subconscious, that often prevent a fair and undistorted view when making or acting on decisions about people or situations.
So, A) is this psychobabble? Or, B) reality grounded in theory? Or, C) fiction impersonating fact? Or, D) our perception of reality that unconsciously guides our thoughts and behavior?
If we accept D as the most accurate, then if we accept that our cultural norms dictate the way things are—the way the world works or should be—then we can begin to recognize how these norms can influence the way we perceive and interact with people and make decisions that involve others without even being aware of the influence of a bias we hold about people or “the facts” we use to make decisions.
Where do these biases come from?
Unconscious biases develop from mental associations we make as a result of both direct and indirect messages we receive about different groups of people. And, we all have them.
Beginning at a very early age and developed over the course of a lifetime, unconscious associations result in positive and negative biases about other people – and ourselves – based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender and many other factors.
- Many are based on messages we absorb from others – parents, teachers, news media, books, TV, movies, innocent conversations expressing long held opinions, jokes, both appropriate and inappropriate.
- Others come from our direct experiences with other people, events, situations, exposure and/or observations of occurrences; and interpreting them through our pre-conceived emotional and intellectual filters.
Think about a time when you and a friend saw the same movie but walked away with completely different interpretations of what you had just seen. Relying on mental associations, we react to what we believe to be true and what we expect, not necessarily what is true. The brain sorts and filters information based on our background. This can result in false impressions and assumptions that influence our actions and interactions with other people.
These mental associations can affect our understanding, behaviors, interactions and decisions; and can lead people to inadvertently act in ways that are counter to conscious intent.
Examples of unconscious bias:
- Assigning a characteristic to people within a social identity group e.g., perceiving “all (choose any aspect of one’s diversity) are …” as if there is no diversity within that group such as “all men enjoy sports”; “all millennials are obsessed with technology and have a sense of entitlement”; women who ask for what they want are needy, are considered bossy and aggressive, while men who do the same are considered champions or good fighters.
- Unconsciously having a positive reaction to someone’s behavior based on a shared identity or assumed similarity – we both went to the same college so this person is a stronger candidate for the job than the person who went to a different school.
- Assuming an employee’s performance will be sub-par based a previously submitted assignment that did not meet expectations – even if the expectations were not made clear.
Potential impact/effect of unconscious bias
If employees (especially leaders) are not conscious of how bias may influence their decision-making in the workplace, unintended consequences can occur such as:
- Low Morale resulting from a workplace environment where employees do not think work assignments, promotions, training opportunities, evaluations, etc. are treated fairly;
- Decreased productivity when employees feel excluded and their contributions are unvalued;
- Lack of credibility and integrity around avowed organizational values;
- A toxic culture where disrespect and inappropriate behavior (including discrimination, bullying and harassment) are the rule rather than the exception.
When our behaviors and decisions are reactions rather than thoughtful responses to people and situations, there is a chance that the “natural” reactions have unconscious and/or conscious biases involved. These biases may influence our reactions/conclusions to what is being perceived as negative or positive (i.e., a bias against or for something or someone).
Examples of Unconscious Bias in the workforce, and how it affects our decisions:
You are hiring in the IT department, and you have heard that Asians are really good at math and IT. Your eye is drawn to Asian names and you spend more time looking at their resumes than those of others.
As the hiring official you have been tasked with hiring an office administrator. Your first job at this company was as an office administrator after being out of the workforce for several years. One of the resumes stands out: a woman who has been out of the workforce to raise children, but scores well on administrative duties. Your inclination is give her the first chance to interview.
This new position requires meetings with “C” level people. One applicant who has interviewed stands out. He doesn’t really have the required experience, but he is a “sharp” dresser. Your opinion is that he would not only fit into the “C” crowd but would be immediately accepted by them.
You grew up in a family that stereotypes people. Unconsciously, you make decisions based on these assumptions and defend them to your grave. People who drink beer like football, have little tolerance for new ideas, and always wear undershirts. The Irish drink too much but are always fun at a party. You never met an Italian who couldn’t make a great spaghetti sauce. Jews are …. blacks are …. Caucasians are clueless (or unaware of) about their own privilege and how it impacts others…
Managing Unconscious Bias
While we are often unaware of our unconscious biases, we can learn to recognize them and control their influence on our actions and interactions with others.
- Accept that you have biases; we can’t change or control the influence of unconscious bias unless we first accept that they exist.
- Watch your first thoughts and explore feeling of discomfort – both may be clues to hidden bias.
- Increase your exposure to others who might come from different backgrounds; look for positive characteristics and determine how they contribute in a positive fashion.
- Cultivate common ground — things you have in common with others who are different – do you share a love of music, mystery novels, sushi – then build relationship from commonalities.
- Listen – you might hear something that proves your biases, but in a positive way rather than a negative way.
- Importantly, forgive yourself for having unconscious biases; we all do, and fair-minded people work to counteract them.
Although many of our actions are the result of messages held deep in our subconscious, consciously working to recognize and control our biases can help us to connect with others and make decisions that are respectful, fair and transparent.
Finally, “Drivers cannot avoid having blind spots in their field of vision, but good drivers are aware of them.” Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me.