Overcoming Unconscious Biases

May 5, 2022 Nicole Johnson

All of us have biases. Our brains are built that way.

Scientists estimate that we are exposed to as much as 11 million bits of information every second, but our conscious minds can handle only 40 to 50 bits of information a second.1  As a result, over 99.9% of incoming information is filtered and discarded. Additionally, our brains interpret the incoming information so efficiently and below our level of awareness that we believe we are being objective.

The conclusion is a universal one: If you have a normal functioning brain, you experience bias. Being biased isn't good or bad. It is natural and normal. It only becomes problematic and potentially hurtful when our unconscious perspectives influence our decisions and interaction with people in less than positive ways.

Inclusive leadership depends on seeing events, situations, and most of all people objectively. It is only when we do this that we can make decisions that correspond to reality. Leaders striving for a more objective perspective at work need to be aware of the different kinds of biases.

An Overview of Biases

There are more than 100 types of biases. Some of the most common workplace biases include race bias, gender bias, cultural bias, and ageism. Here are two that are particularly important in the workplace.

Similarity Bias: We walk into a room for a meeting and look for an empty seat. Without giving any conscious thought, we may choose a seat next to someone who has similar physical attributes. We do this because our human tendency is to favor people we perceive as being similar to us — our in-group. Gravitating to people we think are like us is called similarity bias. We determine similarity based on a variety of dimensions such as, but not limited to, culture, background, age, gender, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. We utilize these same dimensions to designate individuals as dissimilar — i.e., out-group.

Similarity bias can be problematic and even harmful when we treat in-group members favorably and at the expense of others viewed as out-group members. For example, if a hiring manager engages in similarity bias, there is a greater chance the manager will hire individuals perceived to be similar and much less likely to hire individuals thought to be dissimilar, regardless of qualifications.

Confirmation Bias: When we look for information that supports our beliefs, we are demonstrating confirmation bias. This also includes dismissing information that contradicts our beliefs.

In the work world, leaders must make snap decisions all the time. One way we do this is to eliminate extraneous information and seize on information that supports preconceived notions. It's much easier for the brain to follow the path of confirmation bias than to pause and take a new road.

If leaders want to build an inclusive environment, they must educate themselves about some of these common biases. Once biases are understood from an intellectual perspective, then individuals can work to interrupt or challenge actions typically taken with little conscious thought. For example, getting beyond the similarity bias takes deliberate effort.

All these biases contribute to ingroup and outgroup dynamics. Ingroup and outgroup dynamics are very debilitating to an organization and create environments where people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. The objective is to learn about unconscious bias so we can move to a more conscious way of reacting and making decisions. If leaders only focus on diversity, and fail to create an inclusive and equitable environment, employees may elect to find a new leader to work with or leave the organization, because they have a diminished sense of belonging. When organizations fail to implement strategies that focus on diversity and inclusion, its ability to tap into individuals’ innovation and creativity is greatly inhibited

The first step in dealing with unconscious biases is not to be hard on yourself. It starts with understanding that everyone by virtue of having a brain, have biases that exert influence outside of our conscious awareness. Biases can be helpful because they enable us to make quick, efficient judgments and decisions with minimal cognitive efforts.

Our brains have served us well for our time on the planet. So, I would urge you to do away with any negative judgments or self-incrimination. It is important to remember that our brains have tremendous capacity to change. We can install new patterns of thinking and behaving. If we observe something we don't like, we have the power to change it.

Overcome Biases by Learning People’s Stories

Everyone has a story, and we won’t know someone’s unless we take the time to get to know them. This requires leaders to be genuinely curious and desirous to connect with people.

We want to remember that people are multidimensional. We are wonderfully complex individuals with different desires. We all have unique identities based on our life experiences, cultures, and familial influences. It makes us who we are.

One way to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace is to have a genuine desire to want to learn about individuals and make connections; demonstrate a respectful curiosity; and appreciate others. You are guaranteed to be surprised by what you discover.

When you take the time to learn someone’s story, you’ll have a greater sensitivity to the phenomenon of the ingroup and outgroup experience in the workplace. This has tremendous negative implications. People in the outgroup can (or may) feel marginalized, excluded and certainly not valued. Organizations and individuals lose out when similarity bias and other common workplace biases are unchecked

We should try to connect with people and break down barriers. The more we do this, the more comfortable we will be with people we perceive to be dissimilar from us. It also has a value from a neuroscience perspective. We are allowing our brains to be more open to and accepting of people, situations, and events that initially may seem dissimilar therefore uncomfortable to us.

Author David Eagleman wrote, “We are not conscious of most things until we ask ourselves questions about them.” We live in a big world filled with people who have vastly different perspectives. Curiosity helps us to understand them. Once we start asking them questions, we’re likely to reconsider our initial reactions. We may even ask ourselves, “Why did I ever feel that way about this person?”

Reflect and Celebrate

Examining one's thoughts is necessary to tackling unconscious bias. It goes back to what David Eagleman wrote: “We are not conscious of most things until we ask ourselves questions about them.” Reflection plays a critical role in helping us learn from our experiences and reshaping our perspectives.

Reflection includes understanding why you want to grow in this way. You must discover your motivation. Then, if you can be curious and empathetic in the workplace, you can mitigate the negative behaviors around you.

When you eliminate biases from the workplace, you increase everyone’s social well-being. People enjoy their colleagues. Everyone looks forward to coming to work, interacting and learning from each other. That's when organizations really start to thrive.


About the Author

Nicole Johnson

Nicole Johnson, PhD, is a Consulting Partner for Blanchard®. Her consulting and delivery styles focus on meeting the needs of her clients through a very considered and thoughtful emphasis on adult learning and real-world application. Since joining Blanchard, Nicole’s focus has been on helping individual contributors and leaders at all levels use the SLII® framework to enhance their performance and establish high-quality relationships.

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