Unconscious bias used to drive me crazy! I thought: I’m a smart guy, I work hard, I make good decisions – why am I struggling so much in life while others seem to have it easy?
I struggled so much because my good decisions were not good at all. Learning about unconscious bias opened my eyes to the reality of the world.
It taught me how to think for myself for the first time in my life, and now I’m going to teach you the same.
Unconscious bias refers to attitudes which affect our actions and decisions. We adopt these attitudes from personal experiences, socialization and media. We do not have awareness or control of this process, thus the name Unconscious Bias.
In this article I will share with you some compelling examples to help you understand unconscious bias. I will teach you how to turn this blind spot into one of the most useful mental tools you will ever have.
How do biases work?
Bias is an umbrella term for particular tendencies, feelings and opinions that often aren’t reasonable or even useful. We cling to these tendencies because they’re a part of our social identity.
Conscious bias or explicit bias is a prejudice for or against something that we have reason to believe in. As a result, we consciously act upon that belief even though most of the time we won’t admit it publicly.
For example, many people are prejudiced against the government. They believe the government is out to get them. While they can put forth some reasoning for it, it mostly stems from an attitude or belief.
Unconscious bias or implicit bias is very similar to conscious bias. The main difference is that the decision making process is done under the radar of the conscious mind. Therefore we are unaware we are experiencing bias.
For example, you act friendly and nice to someone you find attractive, even when you don’t expect to act on that attraction. You’re simply more inclined to act friendly rather than passive or hostile.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anaïs Nin
What causes unconscious bias?
Bias is a habitual mental process that’s useful for millions of trivial choices that you make daily. These micro choices which would fry your brain if you thought about all of them.
As a result, your mind runs those decisions on autopilot.
In modern times we’re becoming increasingly dynamic social creatures. However, our brains still work by the same old energy conservation methods. Hence decisions about social matters (that should be highly relative) get churned with other decisions of mechanical nature.
When it comes to the number of biases, there are various metrics. Some divide into 3 categories, some 5, and some account for as much as 200 different biases.
For the purpose of this article, though, we will stick to social biases that cause the biggest impact on our daily personal and professional lives.
What triggers biased response?
Using the mechanism of bias we characterize people by two social categories:
- Social backgrounds, such as cultural background, religious identity, political affiliation or job.
- Visual cues, such as gender, ethnicity, age, body type and height.
How biased are you? Take this test to find out how you rank. This will help you get a baseline of your current frame of mind with regards to the most common stereotypes.
Unconscious bias examples in the workplace
- Affinity bias: Having a bias to liking someone who looks like you or someone you like.
This candidate looks like my friend who is hard working, that means he’s hard working too.
- Confirmation bias: Looking for information that supports your idea and ignoring evidence to the contrary.
My colleague complains and gossips about others all of the time. We’re friendly, though, so I don’t think he talks bad about me.
- Halo effect: Assuming someone is great at everything because we like something about them.
She is pretty, so she must be smart as well.
- Bandwagon bias: Believing something because your peers believe it.
Everyone else is hazing the new guy, so there’s nothing wrong with me doing it as well.
These biased ways of thinking are something that comes very natural to us. It’s impossible to question your thinking when you’re caught up in the moment.
The only way you can avoid being affected by a bias is by knowing about it and therefore acting on reasoning rather then intuition.
“Fortunately for serious minds, a bias recognized is a bias sterilized.” Benjamin Haydon
If, for example, you have a situation where you frequently act biased and regret it – simply acknowledging your bias will make you more likely to pause and think next time.
Unconscious Bias in the workplace
Unconscious biases are mostly harmless, when they are related to small scale decision making. As you get tired or deal with repetitive processes more frequently, your mind becomes more prone to utilizing the bias mechanism.
If you are serious about achieving your dreams, you know that small mistakes made consistently will amount to big disasters. This, in turn, can leave you with empty hands, a broken spirit and a big question mark above your head – and that’s exactly what this blog is here to prevent!
Unconscious bias in management:
If you’re a manager, be deliberate when you are making decisions about employees. Unconscious bias can make you hire people who are not the best candidate for the job. It can make you give privileged work assignments to someone who isn’t deserving or responsible.
The decisions you make about employees ripple in effect to the workforce. A good rule of thumb is to always keep the benefit of the team and the company in the forefront of your mind when making decisions.
Managers are more likely to talk about optimistic topics and forward looking topics with those they have an affinity for. They will also be more open to touching personal topics and socializing outside of workplace.
Alternatively, the manager who doesn’t like an employee will use distancing body language. They will often check their phone or cut in during the conversation. Additionally, they will stick to topics of past performance review and often focus on problems.
As a manager, you need to think of your employees as assets and liabilities, not as friends and expendables.
How to use unconscious bias as an employee
If you want to advance your career, the most important thing you need to avoid is getting pulled into workplace politicking. Workplace politics drama breeds bias, distractions and interpersonal difficulties.
Stay focused on your work and professional growth. Be aware of the mentioned biases. Recognize when your boss or coworkers are acting from a biased frame of mind so that you can counteract it.
Also, you can always take advantage of your boss not knowing what you learn here. Do little things to make your boss biased to viewing you as an ally and a responsible individual. This will put you ahead of the line next time there is an opportunity to advance.
Employ influencing skills in order to improve and maintain great relationships with your boss and colleagues.
Unconscious Bias training for your team
We hear a lot about unconscious bias training or sensitivity training nowadays. It’s an effort to promote inclusion and prevent discrimination in schools and companies.
This is a laudable goal because unconscious bias can be a boogeyman in a vibrant community. Bias is something that feeds on ignorance. Therefore any effort to acknowledge it and teach about is praiseworthy.
Most of the time, bias training exercises are activities that are meant to promote a sense of teamwork. Teamwork is the antidote to exclusionary behavior in group settings.
“A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other” – Simon Sinek
If you’re a manager or a team leader, do a team building field trip and plan a constructive activity. This will make the team put aside their differences and pull together for a common goal.
As opposed to practical exercises that teach people trough examples and experiences, the normative types of sensitivity training done by companies often take the form of a “mandatory attendance” lecture.
With mandatory lectures, companies wash their hands from bad PR rather than serve the employees to learn something. For this reason, many leave the lecture feeling like they’ve been scolded for having an opinion.
This approach merely teaches people to hide their true feelings and avoid certain phrases in order to prevent being labeled a bigot.
Annual Review of Psychology examined and reviewed hundreds of unconscious bias studies submitted since the World War II. The publication concludes that people are easily taught the answers to bias questionnaires. However, the effects don’t last more than a day or two.
Unconscious bias exercise for yourself
This is my favorite part of this article because it teaches something that I absolutely love to do, and that’s doing one thing for multiple productive results.
Like writing this article to help you while reaffirming the lessons for myself at the same time. Good times!
Here are 3 simple advice which you can understand and apply immediately to improve your quality of life and your long term chances of success.
According to multiple studies, counterstereotype exercise is the most effective way to reduce bias. You need to expose yourself to real-world examples of people who are complete opposites from what you stereotypically assume, and be willing to learn from them.
In the common example of gender bias against career women, look for successful women who surpass you in your field of professional interest. Listen to what they have to teach you and be willing to learn from them.
By doing this, you are validating their authority and invalidating your bias.
You will be learning something useful to your career and breaking your bias in the same time!
Perspective-taking is the best way to follow up the counterstereotype exercise.
This involves taking those real-world examples of people who invalidate your bias and listening to their life stories. Their humble beginnings and the obstacles they had to overcome on the road to success.
The point is to put yourself in their shoes and then try to imagine the resilience it took to overcome those obstacles.
You will receive big motivation from their stories and you will be breaking your bias at the same time!
Meditation (bonus step):
The term meditation, before it was hijacked by the pop culture, used to mean quiet contemplation and that is exactly what I mean by the term.
Take a few minutes from time to time to just break out of the daily rat race. Be grateful for your health, your family, your friends and your opportune life. Look at the sunset or the stars and realize how small and frail you are. It’s a humbling and necessary thing to appreciate.
Hopefully practicing this will help you deal with the preconditions to unconscious bias by making you less rough around the edges and more kind to yourself and others by default.
In conclusion, I hope you now have a better understanding that, to an extent, we’re all products of circumstance.
Life of an ambitious person is like a poker game, some get their cards dealt more favorable and some less. However, life is a game of skill and you can win by outplaying the players instead of focusing on your cards.
Often I like to remind myself that many of the richest and most influential people in the history of the world came from unbelievably challenging and humble beginnings, overcoming many obstacles in their path.
Don’t let excuses and prejudice get in the way of surrounding yourself with people who will help you achieve your dreams.
What are your experiences with unconscious bias? How are you going to use these lessons to improve your life? Leave a comment below and let me know!