Getting Conscious about Unconscious Bias
February 8, 2018 in Conferences, Publications, & Awards
By Ben Porr
Unconscious bias has been a hot topic in recent years. There are many terms that are used to describe the phenomenon, such as implicit attitudes, implicit bias, subtle bias, and nonconscious bias. No matter what term you use, the goal is to understand peoples’ biased behaviors to help improve how individuals interact and collaborate. If you’ve never taken the implicit association test by Harvard University (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit), I encourage you do to so now because awareness (i.e., getting conscious) is the first step. If you do decide to take the test, be prepared for the fact that about 75% of test-takers show some sort of bias.
Now that we’ve established the fact that most of us have some sort of biases, the question is – how do we make shifts to minimize them so they don’t impact organizational productivity?
First, let’s distinguish unconscious bias from overt bias. Overt bias includes overt, blatant acts of antipathy or superiority based upon subgroup differences. They are generally malicious in nature, are readily identifiable and are typically less frequent. On the other hand, unconscious bias results in behaviors that are usually difficult to detect and observe. They are typically not malicious in nature, are not readily identifiable, and occur at a higher frequency than overt bias. These days, organizations recognize that being overtly biased is unacceptable, but research is showing how these subtlety biased behaviors are alienating individuals in the workplace and impacting the overall productivity of the organization.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, why do I have unconscious biases? In simple terms, unconscious bias stems from cognitive and behavioral psychology. From the cognitive side, our brains are built to make snap decisions based on incomplete information. We all like to believe that when presented with a new situation, we weigh the pros and cons and make an informed and logical decision. Unfortunately, research has shown that we make an immediate emotional decision and then start selecting facts and information to support our decision. This is obviously an overgeneralization, but for anyone that took a Psych 101 class, you learned about different cognitive biases (see a list of them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases). All of them show how the brain takes short cuts to speed up the decision-making process. You can more-or-less think of them as evolutionary life hacks. When we were hunters and gatherers, this was a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, in modern times, we are finding it leads to biased decision-making. From a behavioral perspective, biases stem from things that have shaped our view of the world (e.g., cultural upbringing, generational mindset, personal experiences). We have stereotyped people and situations based on what we’ve learned and what we’ve experienced. Combined, our cognitive and behavioral biases help us to interact in the world, but also cause us to unconsciously make assumptions about people and situations. All is not lost though – we are able to change our behaviors and reduce the impact our unconscious biases have in the work setting.
On February 9th, Ashley Agerter Raitor and I will be presenting at the Leadership Summit in Vienna, VA, held by the Leadership Center for Excellence. If you’re interested in attending the session to learn more about unconscious bias, click this link for registration instructions: https://connect.leadercenter.org/civicrm/event/info?id=21&reset=1. In our presentation, we will provide practical ways leaders can improve their effectiveness by understanding unconscious bias and its impact on their workforce. We will cover five tips that range from understanding your own biases to taking action in your organization. These tips include:
- Taking the implicit association test;
- Watching your own language;
- Identifying entry points for bias;
- Building trust within your team; and
- Training your workforce on key communication skills.
We look forward to seeing you at the conference! If you aren’t able to make it but want to learn more about how FMP can help you effectively manage unconscious bias in your organization and mitigate the negative effects on your workforce programs and practices (including employee recruitment and selection, compensation, training, performance management, career development, and employee engagement), please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.