Unconscious bias occurs readily in society, and most people wouldn’t believe they have one. It’s a type of prejudice or stereotype that individuals believe or have that they are not consciously aware of. Typically, these are unsupported judgments a person has against or for a specific person, group, or thing. You may have them and not realize it.
How Could You Have an Unconscious Bias Without Knowing It?
Many factors contribute to the development of this type of bias, most often over time and sometimes over a lifetime. It’s experiences, thoughts, statements, or beliefs that are developed over a period but are not justified, no matter how much they seem accurate. Consider some examples to better understand what they are and how they could impact you.
One of the most notable unconscious biases is affinity bias, or the simple tendency a person has to gravitate toward other people who seem similar to them. For example, if you are considering who to work with on a team, you may choose someone who is the same gender, race, or age as you are, even if that person isn’t necessarily more qualified than another.
Beliefs about age are a big mistake. That’s not just about thinking seniors are more difficult to work with. Generalized statements about “teenagers being troublesome” or “millennials” having certain habits.
One that may seem a bit more obvious to some but not to ourselves is our tendency to be drawn to people of the same gender for team activities, for example. Yet, gender bias can happen in many ways, ultimately coming down to believing that one gender (whether your own or not) is better qualified for the position.
If you’ve ever judged someone because of their weight – being too thin, too overweight, or wearing clothing that “isn’t right for their body,” then you may have a weight bias. Judging anyone negatively based on their weight or body composition is a common bias that impacts a wide range of positions.
This one is a bit different than what many would expect. This one occurs when a person sets out to find information to prove a point, but instead of using a justified, neutral starting point, seeks out information that provides a specific view that they already believe.
There are many other examples of unconscious bias:
Name bias (using a person’s name to make decisions about their background or culture)
Halo or horns (thinking highly of someone after learning something impressive about them or judging a person negatively after learning something negative about them)
Beauty bias (favoring someone because they are more beautiful than others)
Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
Many of today’s best companies strive to create a culture of inclusion. They want every member of the company to feel as if they belong and are equally valued and respected. Yet, even with a commitment to this, there are situations where it simply may not happen because of these unknown and often difficult-to-understand unconscious biases.
What can be done to help an employer or executive to manage this type of unconscious basis? It’s hard to recognize this in ourselves and even more difficult to realize someone else may be in the same position. Here are some strategies that may help.
A good starting point is to educate yourself and your team on what unconscious bias is and how much it is a part of our lives. Most people who have these tendencies are not racists or unkind. They may not recognize that their thought patterns or beliefs are actually unfounded. Teach people how this is impacting their decisions.
It’s also important for people to understand the nature of that bias. Why do they have it? Where did it come from? By recognizing what these beliefs are and then understanding
where they come from, it’s easier to correct them.
Work to Change Beliefs
As an individual, you can work to make substantial changes to your belief system. That’s not easy to do since unconscious bias is hard wired into the brain from years of belief and practice. However, there are steps that can be taken through neuroscience that can help to re-teach the brain what’s truly accurate and what isn’t.
Encourage People to Weigh Decisions a Second Time
If you are an manager hiring for a position on your team or you are working to support the efforts of your employer and are responsible for providing a list of recommendations, take a step back.
After you’ve created a list of names, ask yourself why one person is on that list. What makes them capable beyond another person? For example, you may believe that a person is “nice and friendly” or “easy to work with,” but determine why that is. The key here is to focus on facts.
Does this person deliver on time
Does their work ethic live up to the standards you’ve set?
Does the person have a proven background?
Is this person on the list because you’ve trusted them before?
Is someone off the list because they don’t like you?
By evaluating any decision you make with this type of focus, not only do you ensure you are making the right decision about who you work with and what people are involved in your work day, but you are going to learn what your unconscious bias is. Recognizing what this is allows you to take the first step in correcting it.
Working Hard Is About Learning to Grow
It’s hard to admit or realize unconscious bias exists in yourself or your team. We don’t think of ourselves as making decisions like this. Yet, it happens readily, and as such, it can prove to be very detrimental to the work environment and the company as a whole. By recognizing it, you create the first step in building change, and over the long term, that can make a big difference in who you hire, how you lead, and your success in the field.