Unconscious bias: Some lessons learned

Everyone’s biased but we can do something about it through training, says Terence Brake.

Am I unconsciously biased? Yes, and its discovery can be a shocking self-revelation. I remember years ago my surprise when the IT support person who came to help me was a woman! OMG, what was I thinking? Well, I wasn’t thinking.

Since then I’ve learned a few lessons I hope trainers find useful.

Be pragmatic rather than ideological

Too many training interventions about bias push a rigid set of beliefs (an ideology) onto participants. Though well-meaning they divide the world into simplistic ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories that create denial or resistance. No one wants to be accused, preached at, or shamed.

Let participants know unconscious bias is perfectly normal

An unconscious bias is a mental shortcut for making decisions. Being human, we are biased. We evolved in treacherous times and needed to react fast to danger. Biases were and are our mental short-cuts. We cannot eliminate biases, but we can be more conscious and vigilant.

Explain the science of unconscious bias

Neuroscience uncovers many new insights into brain functioning.

The brain is exposed to about 11m bits of information at any moment, but can only process a small amount. Brains filter mega amounts of information to get us through everyday life, and they do this by pattern recognition.  When the brain recognises an informational pattern, it uses it to simplify and interpret situations. These patterns (short-cuts) can be very helpful, but also misleading. 

We cannot eliminate biases, but we can be more conscious and vigilant.

Explain that unconscious bias is not prejudice 

Some participants see bias and prejudice as the same. This is not accurate. A bias is a partial perspective about someone/a group/idea/or thing, is usually amenable to reason. A prejudice is any unreasonable attitude – usually conscious – that is resistant to rational influence and change.

Explain to participants the range of biases we have

Mention bias and the association is often to cultural, racial, or gender bias, but this is a narrow perspective. A common unconscious bias is called the Availability Bias – we decide based on the most readily available information (e.g. a colleague’s bias) rather than explore further. Other common biases include:

  • Affinity Bias: tendency to act more favourably to people reminding us of ourselves.
  • Attribution Bias: tendency to think when we do well it is down to our own merit. When we do badly we tend to blame external factors. With other people, we tend to do the opposite.
  • Cognitive Bias: tendency to rely on limited or flawed thinking processes that generate distortions, e.g. stereotypes.  
  • Confirmation Bias: tendency to favour information that confirms existing views.  
  • Cultural Bias: tendency to see our group’s dominant ways of thinking and doing as superior.
  • Group Think: tendency to desire consistency with the views of our group(s).
  • Halo Effect: tendency to generalise a positive perception about a person/group to everything about them.
  • Horn Bias: tendency to generalise a negative perception of an individual/group to everything about them.

Explaining why unconscious bias can be a problem

Unconscious biases limit our ability to reason objectively. While participants should not be shamed in training sessions, they do need to understand the influence of unconscious biases. 

  • Perceptions: what do we consider to be real and important?
  • Attitudes: how do we typically react to events and people?
  • Behaviours: what behaviours do we consider to be ‘normal’ and ‘expected’?  
  • Listening: who do we listen to most attentively?

More specifically, they:

  • Increase the chances valuable people may not be hired – or could be lost – because they don’t ‘fit’.
  • Discourage those from outside of the dominant culture contributing their ideas, innovating, or taking the initiative.
  • Interfere with the productivity of individuals and work teams.
  • Reinforce the mindset that there is only ‘one-way’ to manage and achieve goals.

Unconscious biases can be more prevalent and harmful when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.

Let participants discover unconscious bias for themselves

Telling participants about unconscious bias leads to little change. A phased experiential approach is best. For example:

  • Discover – using assessments, discussions, exercises, and real-world scenarios to trigger self-reflection and analysis
  • Develop – translating insights into skills/strategies for mitigating bias
  • Deploy – having participants practice skills/strategies in different work situations

Be careful about overemphasising differences

Research shows that people feel less empathy when differences are highlighted. This approach produces a self-righteous or guilt response resulting in a ‘them vs. us’ mindset. We need to understand each other’s life experiences and how they shaped our biases rather than contrasting, comparing, and judging.

Introduce participants to practical skills that can be applied immediately

Many skills for managing unconscious bias can be categorised under Self and Interpersonal Leadership. 

‘Self-Leadership’ involves taking responsibility for the process of observing, analysing, and managing one’s biases. Relevant skills would include:

  • Anticipation – identifying potential entry points for unconscious biases, e.g. language use. 
  • Inner dialogue – reflection and self-talk.
  • Mindfulness – being alert to our thinking processes in the present moment.
  • Naming – labelling your biases (e.g. Affinity Bias, Confirmation Bias) so they become easier to recognise.

‘Interpersonal Leadership’ is taking responsibility for uncovering and managing relational unconscious bias through:

  • Active listening and observing – paying close attention to language and behaviours.
  • Coaching – uncovering our own unconscious biases in the coaching process.
  • Questioning assumptions – seeking out information that is contrary to our preconceptions.
  • Communicating courageously – being able to explore and challenge unconscious bias with colleagues  
  • Individuating – treating each person as an individual and not a stereotype.
  • Perspective-taking – purposely trying to see the world through the eyes of others.

Let participants know how the organisation is supporting them in minimising unconscious bias

Participants respond best when they see steps being taken to counter unconscious bias in organisational systems and processes. For example, some organisations employ what are called ‘Interruption Strategies’ or ‘Bias Interrupters’. 

These companies look at vulnerable points where unconscious bias could cause mischief, e.g. hiring, choosing a vendor. An example is a company that removes candidate identification data from resumes before they are reviewed by managers, e.g. name (often indicating ethnicity); gender, address (possibly indicating social class or region); age (possibly triggering unconscious biases against different generations).

Customise the training initiative

Participants take away the most learning when they recognise their current reality in examples and exercises. The cognitive effort of translating standardised content to the actual workplace should not be the burden of participants, but trainers.


About the author

Terence Brake is director, learning & innovation, TMA World



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