Unconscious Bias: A Primer

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What is unconscious bias and how can you prevent it from influencing your workplace decisions?

I had the pleasure of attending the CCDI’s D&I: The UnConference on Unconscious Bias in Toronto on October 26, 2015. Presenters Michael Bach and Renée Bazile-Jones led the group through an analysis of unconscious bias, exploring the ways it influences our decision-making capabilities, and strategies for minimizing its hold on us. For those who were unable to attend this event, you’ll find a quick primer below that can be used as you begin your own journey toward conquering unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

At its core, unconscious bias is a preference formed without any reasonable justification, which can prevent a person’s judgement from being balanced. In the context of diversity and inclusion, it’s a preference or dislike formed toward a person or a group of people without any reasonable justification.

Every one of us has numerous unconscious biases working behind the scenes. They’re instinctual and many of them are necessary for our survival. After all, thinking requires a lot of energy. To help conserve energy for the important decisions we have to make, our brains create mental maps that allow us to function on autopilot when it comes to smaller, more repetitive tasks like breathing, eating, or driving to work. Unfortunately, this automation also affects how we view and categorize other people. These mental maps work well as long as the variables never change. But when we’re dealing with people and all their differences and complexities, the variables are always changing, which means we need to actively overwrite our mental map.

Where does unconscious bias come from?

A crucial step in learning how to manage your own biases is to understand where they come from. There are many sources of unconscious bias, and we’re influenced by all of them.

The five most powerful sources are:

  1. Instinct: Since humanity’s earliest days living in caves and trees, difference often resulted in conflict. This deeply ingrained fear is not relevant to living in the 21st century, but many of us still feel the impulsive ‘fight or flight’ response when encountering a person who is different from us.
  2. Media: As a viewer, you won’t be consciously calculating and reflecting on diversity stats, but your brain is subconsciously receiving those messages and building a harmful mental map which will inform your future thoughts regarding other people. When consuming media, start thinking about who is represented and how, as well as who is not represented (absence is as powerful as presence) and why. Once you start to pay attention to this you’ll notice that certain groups are more often presented as authority figures and certain groups are more often presented as criminals or terrorists.
  3. Upbringing: Our brains are incredibly malleable as children and teenagers. The beliefs of our parents, relatives, caregivers, teachers, and friends influence so much about how we view the world and everyone in it even after we’ve reached adulthood.
  4. Culture: In North America, we tend to value extroversion. We like our employees and leaders to be friendly, outgoing, bold and confident. In Asia, humility tends to be more valued. Importance is placed on the ability to work well with others and project a strong, calm demeanor. Neither of these workplace personalities styles is more effective or talented than the other, but you likely have a preference for one personality type over the other, largely informed by your own culture.
  5. Your own Diversity Dimensions: When it comes to aspects of diversity, how do you identify yourself? We tend to like (and therefore hire, mentor and promote) people who are similar to us.

The next time you recognize yourself having a biased thought, try to reflect on where that bias may have come from and how trustworthy it actually is.

How can we overcome our unconscious biases?

In the workplace, our unconscious biases influence decisions around interviewing and hiring, retention, mentoring, promotion, workplace social events, employee reviews, firing, salary negotiation, workplace culture, and team dynamics. If we really want to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces, we must begin to dismantle our own biases. Easy and effective strategies for overcoming unconscious bias are:

  1. Constant questioning: When interacting with someone different than yourself, question your initial perceptions. How do you feel about this person, and more importantly, why do you think you feel that way?
  2. Ask for other people’s perspectives: Not sure if your negative thoughts about a potential hire or vendor are based in reality or just influenced by your bias? Ask for another co-worker’s opinion (who is different from you).
  3. Embrace and celebrate diversity in the workplace: Focus on the positives that difference can bring, including new clients and customers, new viewpoints and new insights into your industry.
  4. Examine your organization’s interview guide and interview questions: Are they accessible and welcoming to all potential candidates?
  5. Know yourself: Be willing to admit that you have biases and understand that you are not a bad person because of it. Uncovering your own biases is a learning opportunity.
  6. Evaluate your daily workplace interactions: Who do you assign work to? Who do you take to important meetings? Who do you publicly praise or recognize? Who do you choose to mentor and sponsor? When you describe a candidate as ‘not being the right fit’ for your team, what do you mean by that?
  7. Broaden your horizons: Get to know people (both inside and outside of work) who are different from you. If this is not possible, read, watch, and listen to things by people different from you (books, podcasts, articles, blogs, etc.)
  8. Avoid generalities in language: Don’t use phrases that begin with “They are” or “They can’t”, etc.
  9. Don’t look at an individual as being a spokesperson for an entire group of people: An employee with autism does not speak for the entire autistic community.

Armed with these tools, you can begin making more objective workplace decisions immediately. And when you’re ready to learn more? The CCDI is here for you! Check out their upcoming list of events and other helpful resources – here.

Originally Published: November 18th, 2015.
Edited by: Kayla Altman

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About the Author:

Karen Sadler
CCDI Volunteer Writer
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