At any given moment, our brains are receiving an estimated 11 million pieces of information. But we can only consciously process a tiny fraction – so we rely on our subconscious, which helps us filter information by taking mental shortcuts. Unconscious bias is the information, attitudes, and stereotypes that inform these shortcuts.
Unconscious bias in the workplace creates a unique challenge because it involves more than just behavior. It involves the way each person in the workforce processes information and makes decisions. It’s crucial for employees to see beyond the bias and make evidence-based decisions to increase inclusion and the quality of decision making throughout their organization.
But first we need to clear up some of the most popular myths:
Myth 1: We don’t need to worry anymore about conscious bias or bigotry. We are far from being ‘post-racial’. Individual acts of verbal, physical and emotional violence against people due to their real or perceived group membership are still relatively common. Hidden and micro acts of aggression – such as not putting someone on that special project – also count and add up to a toxic environment.
Myth 2: I don’t have any unconscious biases. Oh please! I hear this so often – and often from ‘nice’ people who really believe it. It’s frightening to think we may not be 100% aware or in control of what we think and do. But we have evolved to constantly and unconsciously make immediate decisions based on limited data and pre-existing patterns.
Myth 3: I know what my unconscious biases are. By definition, unconscious bias is – well – unconscious. You may have a sense of what some of your biases are, but be blind to others. Keep in mind that our unconscious biases can often conflict with our conscious beliefs and values. You are not your biases – but you are responsible for curbing them.
Myth 4: Since everyone’s biased, we can move on from that tired conversation about racism/sexism, etc. No – now is the time to face these conversations and tackle them directly. This is not an excuse, it is not mitigation – it’s a huge call to learn more about how these unconscious biases work with the conscious ones to create systemic biases in our organizations.
Myth 5: Since unconscious bias is unconscious, there’s nothing I can do about it. Excellent suggestions abound about how to mitigate the effect of negative unconscious bias in talent management and hiring practices through awareness, calibration, and effective behaviors. But you have to want to – and recognise that your reactions are being controlled by these biases.
Tips for Tackling Unconscious Bias
1. Awareness of who you feel ‘comfortable’ with – and who you don’t – is the first step towards tackling your unconscious biases. Once you observe this, begin to observe the opposite. What are the groups you don’t feel like that around? You are then on your way to exploring the hidden assumptions we all make every day – which may be based on race, gender, sex, religion, politics, personality type, class or physical attributes.
2. Empathy is key, particularly ‘perspective taking’. The ability to feel or imagine what another person feels or might feel by taking some time to have an introductory discussion around career goals, relationships, or hobbies can positively impact the relationship with that person before you move on to speak about work.
3. Exposure to other groups, the differences between the groups, and individuals in the group and their successes helps to challenge stereotypes that may have been built up in your mind. Mixing with a variety of people outside your traditional circle helps break down assumptions.
4. Use positive stereotype imagery to imagine alternatives to any negative ones you may have in your mind. This positive and proactive approach to changing stereotypes involves considering the diversity within your social and work groups, as well as the many examples of those we don’t know personally – such as business leaders, athletes, politicians, and celebrities – who break the stereotypes.
5. Micro-affirmations are small gestures of respect and inclusion, and can help you to become more consciously fair. More focus given to listening, inclusion, valuing, and engaging with those from all groups helps to make the workplace a more equitable environment.
And finally, the real key to progress in tackling unconscious bias lies in embedding. A ‘one and done’ training approach does not work. The secret of success is regularly reigniting the learning – with video nudges at talent management time, for example. Business leaders need to ensure biased statements and actions are called out – as part of a truly inclusive environment.