An Introduction to Unconscious Bias

“Research suggests that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.” – Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Every decision that we make and every interaction we are a part of are influenced by factors both within and outside of our scope of awareness. In the blink of an eye, we quickly size up the current situation or person, select the most important factors to consider, scan our memories for pre-existing data points and then develop a plan of action. It all sounds well and good until you consider the limitations that our brains have to contend with in this process.

One such limitation is bandwidth. Since our brains are very limited as to how much data they can take in and process simultaneously, we take shortcuts. In particular, we give greater weight to certain types of new information over others. We also make assumptions about what will happen in the future based upon what we think happened in the past. We take these shortcuts both to protect ourselves and to save time and energy in the decision making process.

Besides the bandwidth problem is the limited accuracy of our past reference points. Each of us stores our own version of “truth” in our minds. This story of right and wrong, of past events and their presumed causes and effects (and their emotional impact on us), becomes the gold standard by which we anticipate how current events will unfold and affect us in the future. Helpful sometimes and burdensome in others, this is the realm of unconscious bias.

In the following video, Paul Meshanko discusses the concept of “knowledge vs. Beliefs” and the idea that, just because we believe something to be true doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Biases and short-cuts

In its broadest definition, a bias is a prejudice for or against a thing, concept or person. Some biases affect how we interact with others. Others affect how we process ideas, opportunities and challenges. What’s important to note is that all people have biases. Collectively, so do teams, organizations and communities. Having biases does not make us “bad”. In fact, they make us human. Our brains develop, store and activate biases to both protect us and make our lives more predictable.

The problem with biases is that they most often affect our decisions unconsciously (hence the term unconscious bias) and in ways that lead to less-than-ideal decisions and behaviors. At the current time, there are over 30 recognized types of biases that can affect how we engage our worlds. Some, such as the confirmation bias, are well documented and intuitively easy to understand. Others, such as temporal discounting, are not as widely discussed, but are no less impactful in their ability to influence decisions. Visit the Managing Bias page created by Facebook for an overview of some forms of bias that can have negative effects in the workplace.

One of the reasons that biases are so powerful is they are anchored by our currently predominant beliefs and feelings, even ones that we’re not aware of consciously. As a result, they make our decisions literally feel “right”. As we teach in our workshop Blindsided: Uncovering, Understanding & Managing Bias, changing the way we think and behave is difficult. But it’s not impossible.

Breaking Through Bias to Build Inclusion

As a result of bias within organizations, those affected may experience feeling discounted or left out because of who they are. This can trigger powerful emotions. These emotions are harmful to both individuals and their groups. Organizations that make it difficult (knowingly or not) for employees who do not fit a particular “mold” to feel a part of and contribute their ideas and talents are at a much greater risk for low morale, employee turnover, and, oftentimes, declining customer satisfaction.

The goal of an organization should be that of fostering a culture of inclusion. One of the reasons why inclusion is such an important goal is that it is experienced the same way by people across the globe. While the behaviors that trigger this experience may vary a bit from group to group and culture to culture, feeling that we are accepted and welcomed for our true selves generates very powerful, favorable, emotions. When this feeling can be created consistently across work groups, job satisfaction and productivity go up and the entire organization benefits.

To learn more about Blindsided: Uncovering, Understanding & Managing Bias, call us at 888-892-0300 for a consultation about how we can help your organization uncover, understand and manage bias to build a more respectful and productive workplace culture.