Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias
Horns and Halos

Unconscious bias is powerful! But what do we mean when we hear the term “unconscious bias”? and what impact can it have on our everyday thinking?

Bias is a prejudice which is either in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, often in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or organisation and can have negative or positive consequences.

There are two types of biases: conscious bias and unconscious bias. In this post we focus on unconscious bias or as it is often referred to the “horns and halos effect”. Unconscious bias is far more prominent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s own conscious values. Specific situations, although we may not be immediately aware of them, can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs.

So, for example two team members are in line for a promotion. Both Lisa and Jane have great skills and it’s going to be a tricky decision to call between them however, you appoint Jane because she always presents well at conference.

You are convinced you have made the right decision, and your decision has been based on objective evidence. But what if that decision was actually based on something else, without you being aware of it? It may be difficult for you to acknowledge but it is possible that your unconscious bias may have affected your decision making. This could be down to race, gender, age, social class etc., and your decision to not appoint Lisa could be partly because of her race.

Unconscious bias can cause us to behave in ways which if we observed in others we may find offensive. Yet the reality is that our behaviour etc., can be influenced by our gut instinct just as much as by our rational thought processes. See:

Top 10 Tips for Recruitment

If we were to evaluate every decision we made every day, we would soon become overwhelmed. Our brains protect us to a degree by making unconscious decisions. Therefore, there is a direct link between our unconscious thinking and our actions and behaviour.

Why Do We Have Unconscious Biases?

Research suggests that we have “unconscious bias” and this allows us to save time and effort processing information about people, thereby freeing us up to spend more of our mental resources on other tasks. As with most things however, there is a down side too! It can cause us to make assumptions and take action based on those biases.

The majority of us no doubt would like to think that we are not biased, yet in all likelihood we probably do harbour unconscious negative opinions about people who are outside our own social circle. Yet, if we actively interact with other social groups, for example, the less likely we are to feel prejudice against them.

The Impact of Discrimination

Admitting that we have prejudices is often uncomfortable, but we do need to be aware because of the serious consequences we can have on the people we work with, manage or interact with. Research evidences that perceived discrimination, that is how people feel when they’re being discriminated against, can affect various elements of their performance, including morale, commitment, engagement and so on.

If you continue to be unaware and carry on acting as you always have you could find yourself the subject of a grievance procedure or worse a disciplinary.

The Benefits of Diversity

The Equality Act 2010 sets out all of the protected characteristics including race, gender, age, sexuality, education, and social class. Migration, social mobility and urbanization will also impact workplace diversity for the near and foreseeable future. To embrace such diversity however, reaps numerous benefits including a greater variety of perspectives and problem solving ideas; improved customer service; empathy; increased creativity and innovation; diverse leadership; and business growth to name but a few examples.

Top Tips to Avoid Unconscious Bias:

Start by Recognising Your Own Biases

Take a long hard look in the mirror and be honest with yourself about the stereotypes that affect you. For example, do you believe people who are overweight must be lazy? If you do, your unconscious bias could influence your actions so that you exclude candidates from certain roles or positions.

An example of where unconscious may come into play is recruitment. It is said that people often recruit in their own image, and that is a result of unconscious bias. Yet, once you are aware of this you can proactively take steps to reduce the chance of bias. Use neutral language e.g. “they” rather than “he” or “she”. When you read application forms, look at the supporting statement first to assess whether the applicant meets the requirements for the role. That way you focus more on the performance and skills mentioned than on issues such as gender, see:
Unconscious Bias in Recruiting

Focus on People

Processes are important but not as important as people. To maintain a focus on people to avoid unconscious bias spend time establishing expectations, communication including giving and receiving feedback, set SMART objectives which are fair and consistent across your team, focus on strengths and development needs rather than strengths and weaknesses.

Increase Exposure to Biases

Everyone has an unconscious bias. Our propensity to discriminate may not be intentional but it can be hugely damaging both for the individual who is the subject of the act as well as the individual who executed the act. The more we expose ourselves to ideas, images and words that challenge negative stereotypes, the less discriminatory we will be.

Whatever our biases, we can learn to love them once we recognize them and use them to better inform the decisions we make, see:
How I Learned to Love Unconscious Bias