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What is unconscious bias?

06 March 2018


As a manager or business owner you make dozens of decisions every day, often without even realising it. You probably couldn’t even put a figure on how many because people make decisions all the time without consciously considering the situation. But no one is a blank canvas and your personal and social background, your history, and your education, can all inform the decisions you make. It’s something researchers now refer to as unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

You may think your decisions are objective and fair but with the best will in the world they will be skewed by unconscious bias. Put simply, unconscious bias is an inclination or prejudice against a single person or group of people brought on by your experiences, cultural context and societal stereotypes.

Whether you like it or not, it will be affecting your decisions and actions without you even realising. The brain is a complicated organ, constantly working and making choices. It’s also constantly looking at ways to speed up those processes and a by-product of that is unconscious bias.

What are the different types of unconscious bias?

There are many different ways, and many different causes, that lead to unconscious bias occurring. 

Conformity bias

Imagine you are making an important decision about acquiring a new bit of business with other work colleagues. If you feel that the majority are leaning in a particular direction, then you will be more inclined to ignore your own opinion and favour the group’s instead.

Beauty bias

This is where you tend to feel the most attractive people are the most successful or that staff who are well dressed are likely to be more accomplished. Recruiters might unconsciously look to fill a role with someone who has the same physical attributes of the previous employee.

Halo effect

An employee does one amazing thing and you allow that to colour the rest of your decisions about them. Rather than making objective future decisions you are blinded by the one thing they did.

Horns effect

Just as you can allow good things to affect your judgement you can also let bad things affect what you do as well. One bad decision doesn’t mean you have a bad employee on your hands.

Affinity bias

This is when you feel an affinity to someone because of common characteristics e.g. you grew up in the same town or went to the same university.

Similarity bias

People tend to surround themselves with people similar to them. In business it means you get a less diverse workforce.

Confirmation bias

People will often make a judgement about a person then unconsciously look for evidence to back that up where none exists rather than looking at concrete facts.

Attribution bias

When we do something well we tend to think it’s down to our own brilliance and when we do something bad it’s someone else’s fault. The reverse is true when looking at other people – they do something well and it’s luck, they do something badly and it’s seen to be their fault.

Contrast effect

If you’re looking at a load of CVs in a row, for example, there is an unconscious tendency to compare it with the one before rather than comparing it to the job description and skills required.

Why is it important to be aware of unconscious bias at work?

Unconscious bias can affect all the decisions you make at work from recruitment and performance management, to promotion and staff development. It will affect your perceptions of your staff and managers, it will colour your attitude and the way you react towards certain people, it will make you less friendly towards some workers and more friendly with others.

It can lead to a less diverse workforce because you gravitate towards people with similar backgrounds to you. Without even realising it you can end up with people who might not be the best workers for your business but who align more with your own experiences and background. It can lead to discriminatory decisions that could ultimately hinder rather than help your business.

How to overcome unconscious bias

Thankfully, the effects of unconscious bias in business can be mitigated once you’re aware of it.

Identify your biases

There are free implicit association questionnaires online that you can take. Based on your results you can receive a report which will reveal what your biases are and how they impact on certain topics.

Think hard about your inner decisions

Are you making snap judgements or are you making a decision based on qualitative information? Make an effort to review your decisions and assess whether it’s because of a particular bias or whether you’re behaving objectively.

Don’t exclude anyone

Try not to focus your time on those who are similar in age, gender and educational history. In fact, actively focus sometimes on those who are different from you.

Create core values

In the day-to-day running of your business it’s easy to overlook the core values. Writing down your most fundamental values such as a respect for all workers and fair treatment can help guard against unconscious bias in the workplace.

Work against your negative and positive biases

There are negative stereotypes such as men are better in the boardroom than women but equally there are positive stereotypes which could impact your business.

Alter your thought patterns

Learn to identify generalisations and stereotypes. Stop before you make a decision and consciously ask yourself why you think that and what your decision would be with a different perspective.

Counter stereotypes with positive images

How about women in hard hats working on a construction site, female plumbers or male midwives? Try to think about your biases and then imagine the opposite.

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