Unconscious Bias: Some Lessons Learned

Let participants discover unconscious bias for themselves. Telling participants about unconscious bias is often counterproductive. A phased experiential approach is best.

Am I unconsciously biased? Yes. Are you unconsciously biased? Yes. This discovery can be a shocking self-revelation. I remember my surprise years ago when the IT support person who came to help me was a woman. What was I thinking? Well, I wasn’t thinking. I was on bias-autopilot.

Since then, I’ve learned a few lessons I hope trainers find useful:

Be pragmatic rather than ideological. Too many training interventions about bias push a rigid set of beliefs (an ideology) onto participants. Though well-meaning, they divide the world into simplistic “good” and “bad” categories that create denial or resistance. No one wants to be accused, preached at, or shamed.

Let participants know unconscious bias is perfectly normal. An unconscious bias is a mental shortcut for making decisions. We are all biased. We evolved in treacherous times and needed to react quickly to possible danger. Biases were and are our mental shortcuts. We cannot eliminate biases, but we can be more conscious and vigilant.

Explain that unconscious bias is not prejudice. Some participants see bias and prejudice as the same. This is not accurate. A bias is a partial perspective about someone/a group/idea/thing, and is amenable to reason. A prejudice is any unreasonable attitude—usually conscious—that is resistant to rational influence and change.

Explain the science of unconscious bias. Neuroscience uncovers many new insights into brain functioning. Our brains help us make sense of the world through informational pattern recognition. When the brain recognizes a pattern, it uses it to simplify and interpret situations. These patterns (shortcuts) are often useful, but can be misleading.

Stretch participants’ understandings of bias. Start with demonstrating how the mind works before engaging with the more politicized gender, racial, or cultural biases.

A common—but neglected—unconscious bias is called the Availability Bias, i.e., we base a decision on the most readily available information (such as a close colleague’s bias) rather than digging deeper. Other common unconscious biases include:

  • Affinity Bias: A tendency to act more favorably toward people reminding us of ourselves.
  • Attribution Bias: A tendency to think when we do well it is the result of our merit. When we do badly, we tend to blame external factors. With other people, we tend to do the opposite.
  • Cognitive Bias: A tendency to rely on limited (shortcut) thinking processes that distort reality, e.g. stereotyping.
  • Confirmation Bias: A tendency to favor information that confirms existing views.
  • Conformity Bias: A tendency to desire consistency with the views of others.
  • Ethnocentrism Bias: A tendency to see our group’s dominant ways of thinking and doing as superior.
  • Halo Effect: A tendency to generalize a positive perception about a person/group to everything else about them.
  • Horn Bias: A tendency to generalize a negative perception of an individual/group to everything else about them.

Explain why unconscious bias can be a problem. Unconscious biases limit our ability to be objective. While participants should not be shamed during training, they do need to understand the implications of unconscious biases on:

  • What we consider to be real and important.
  • Our typical responses to events and people.
  • What we consider “normal” and “expected” behaviors.
  • Who we listen to most attentively.

More specifically, they:

  • Increase the chances valuable people may not be hired—or could be lost—because they don’t “fit.”
  • Discourage those from outside of the dominant culture from contributing their ideas, innovating, or taking the initiative.
  • Interfere with the productivity of individuals and teams.
  • Reinforce the mindset that there is only one way to achieve goals.

Unconscious biases can be more prevalent and harmful when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.

Let participants discover unconscious bias for themselves. Telling participants about unconscious bias is often counterproductive. A phased experiential approach is best. For example:

  • Discover: Utilizing assessments, discussions, exercises, and real-world scenarios to trigger self-reflection and analysis.
  • Develop: Translating insights into skills/strategies for mitigating bias.
  • Deploy: Having participants practice skills/strategies in different work situations.

Be careful about overemphasizing differences. Research shows that people feel less empathy when differences are highlighted. This approach produces a self-righteous or guilt response, resulting in a “them vs. us” mindset.

We need to understand each other’s life experiences and how they have shaped our biases rather than contrasting, comparing, and judging.

Introduce participants to practical skills that can be applied immediately. Many skills for managing unconscious bias can be categorized under Self and Interpersonal Leadership.

Self-Leadership: Taking responsibility for the process of observing, analyzing, and managing one’s biases. Relevant skills include:

  • Anticipation: Identifying potential entry points for unconscious biases, e.g., language use.
  • Inner dialogue: Reflection and self-talk.
  • Mindfulness: Being alert to our thinking processes in the present moment.
  • Naming: Labeling your biases (e.g., Affinity Bias, Confirmation Bias) so they become easier to recognize.

Interpersonal Leadership is taking responsibility for uncovering and managing relational unconscious bias. Relevant skills include:

  • Active listening and observing: Paying close attention to language and behaviors.
  • Coaching: Uncovering our own unconscious biases in the coaching process.
  • Questioning assumptions: Seeking out information contrary to our preconceptions.
  • Communicating courageously: Exploring unconscious biases with colleagues.
  • Individuating: Treating each person as an individual and not a stereotype.
  • Perspective taking: Purposely trying to see the world through the eyes of others.

Let participants know how their organization is supporting them. Participants respond best when they see steps being taken to counter unconscious bias in organizational systems and processes. For example, some organizations employ what are called “Interruption Strategies” or “Bias Interrupters.”

These companies look at vulnerable points where unconscious bias could cause mischief, e.g., hiring or choosing a vendor. An example is a company that removes candidate identification data from resumes before being reviewed by managers, including name (often indicating ethnicity); gender, address (possibly indicating social class or region); and age (possibly triggering unconscious biases against different generations).

Customize the training initiative. Participants take away the most learning when they recognize their current reality in examples and exercises. The cognitive effort of translating content to the actual workplace should not be the burden of participants, but of trainers.

Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (http://www.tmaworld.com/training-solutions/), which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.

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