How to Overcome Unconscious Bias

Career columnist Liz Bentley explains the importance of pushing past implicit preferences in decision-making.

Published: Apr 26, 2019

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The unconscious mind is truly incredible. It can handle significantly more information than our conscious mind, and therefore can hijack logical thinking and replace it with biases that have been formed by social filters that come from our personal history and experiences.

The unconscious mind processes everything around us and segregates information to focus on. From this, we make emotional decisions on what we're attracted to, which can include simple characteristics like gender, age, height, and cultural background. They can also be formed from subtle social cues like social background, job, religion, and politics. These decisions are not based in fact or accuracy, but are emotional overrides that have us see the world the way our biases see it, rather than the way it really is.

Unconscious bias gets in the way of us being our best selves. 

From these unconscious biases we create social categories of the people we like and want to associate with. Unconsciously, we form groups of people that are "in" and ones that are "out." To increase our confidence and sense of belonging, we elevate our group so we believe it is better than others and look down on groups that we don't relate to as well. It can happen in social circles as well as at work (e.g., "our team is better than the other team").

How it hurts us.

The danger with unconscious bias is that it's built on emotional decisions, and in some cases frivolous qualifications, instead of logic and evidence. For example, deciding someone is competent because we connect with them ("we both share a love of tennis"), not because they're demonstrably skilled and successful in their area of work.

These biases play a fundamental role in the way we make decisions about people and circumstances, which can negatively impact the workplace:

In hiring and building teams: We may choose the person who is most like us, which blocks us from diversifying our teams and backgrounds. This is a problem because groups with the same mindset are less able to see change. This can hinder innovation and the ability to adapt and pivot in a world that is changing so quickly.

In growing our people: We fall prey to the same challenges, and may overlook the best talent and not see potential in people we need. This compromises our ability to develop the best teams and put the right people in the right seats. Overlooking great possibilities that lie right in front of us will not only sour the "outsider" to what they may view as prejudice, but can also disrupt the team and cause people to lose faith.

In networking and business referrals: We often give business to our friends. But our friends are not everyone else's friends, and if they are not the best at what they do then we undermine the quality of our recommendation. This ultimately causes our peers and colleagues to lose trust in us.

Unconscious bias gets in the way of us being our best selves. It also prevents us from giving people the benefit of the doubt, which is to give people second chances, more opportunity, and better coaching-and to overlook weaknesses. It allows us to be human and not have to try to be perfect at all moments. This is the big reason why women and other minorities have not advanced faster in politics and the workplace. For one, they are almost always in the outside group by default, and secondly, they are not given the advantage of having the benefit of the doubt-which often translates to "it's OK you made those mistakes because I can see your potential." This can be subtle but have a far-reaching impact in how salaries are set, bonuses are distributed, and promotions are given.

How we can address it.

First you have to acknowledge and admit that you, like everyone, has unconscious biases. While it's very difficult to avoid their trappings, you need to start with awareness. Identify what your biases are and where you get the most stuck-gender, race, social status, education, physical attributes, etc. If you focus your mindset on performing and building the best teams and networks, it will allow you to see talent with new eyes.

And if you find you're an outsider trying to get in, make inroads by understanding the people you want to connect with-what's important to them and how you can make that leap. I was recently talking with a client who had her husband debrief her on NFL football games every Sunday, so that she could go to work and connect with the men. While we are working toward a world of diversity and open-mindedness, we have to remember that it will be hard to get there without the benefit of the doubt. Don't assume people's distance is conscious. It's important to connect with your boss and your boss's peers and get access to the inside group. Don't be afraid to work your connections, but always stand by your integrity and do it from a place of authenticity. Often you will find commonalities with people that will surprise you. And, if possible, try to connect by finding things you really care about.

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