When a friend of mine recently undertook jury service, the jurors were advised by the court that it’s acceptable for them to use their life’s experiences to help them in their decision making.
We store information in our brains that we use as our reference library, so in a way, they’re stating what is inevitable anyway. I’m interested in what informs the decisions we make. I know some of that is conscious but also that some is unconscious, and understanding this better could help us at work.
Unconscious bias creeps among us, sneaking up on the decisions we make and the things we do. The risk comes not from the biases that affect us but in ignoring them or thinking we are not affected by them. So, what are these biases and how can we manage them?
Some biases are obvious, and as such, it’s easy to identify them and regulate against them. Policies exist in every organisation that safeguard against people being treated differently. However, what is less straightforward to identify is when discrimination happens because of unconscious bias. It can affect recruitment, career progression and talent management. In a recent study 80% of employers admitted to making decisions based on regional accents.
We each have two response mechanisms: one is our immediate, gut reaction; the second is the slower, more considered reaction. Both are important. If we’re faced with danger, we’re safer if we don’t ponder on what to do, but instead instinctively get ourselves away from it. However, we’d hope that we’d make a more considered response if we were suddenly very frustrated by something our boss did, for example. Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow’ explores in detail these two ways of thinking.
Our unconscious bias links to when our brains make incredibly quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, without us realising it. Whereas other aspects of a decision or choice may be weighed up, we are automatically steered by any unconscious bias that might be triggered. Our unconscious bias is influenced by factors including our environment, beliefs, and personal experiences. The key things to remember about unconscious bias are that it’s completely natural, it’s unintended and it can affect decisions. The good news is that it can be mitigated.
There are several different types of unconscious bias. For example, a familiarity bias causes us to be attracted towards people we have something in common with. Consider a potential job application; under ‘other interests’ the applicant says she has three cats. This might lean you towards her, or indeed away from her, depending on your position on multiple cat ownership.
Another example, the halo unconscious bias, occurs when we assign positive characteristics on someone we don’t actually know. For example, those who dress conservatively are often seen as more capable in an office environment, based purely on their attire.
Unconscious bias can have an unhealthy influence on decisions in the workplace, so here are some suggestions for managing it:
- understand what unconscious bias is and how it affects judgements and decision making
- develop empathy; as well as creating greater understanding and harmony, this will help us identify with others who are different
- consider how processes could be changed to eliminate unconscious bias, for example, leaving names off application forms would mean that applicants are assessed purely on their skills, rather than their sex or nationality
- ensure evidence is documented on decisions that affect people, which forces decision makers to work more on fact than subjectivity
- be aware of how tiredness and/or stress can exacerbate unconscious bias
- challenge your own decisions, asking yourself what bias might be influencing you
Analysing where unconscious bias affects the decisions you make and those made in your organisation can be quite insightful. I’d love to talk more about this so if it interests you too, get in touch so we can grab a coffee and think some more on the topic.