Five myths about unconscious bias

Angela Peacock tackles the issue of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias in the workplace has increasingly been making headlines in recent months. Partly because it can be used as an excuse for conscious discrimination and partly because there has been some research proving that bias reduction training is not effective. A conundrum!

So let’s clear up some of the most popular myths:

  1. We don’t need to worry any more about conscious bias or bigotry. Clearly the events unfolding around the world prove that we are far from being ‘post-racial’. Individual acts of verbal, physical and emotional violence against people due to their real or perceived group membership are still common. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Hidden and micro acts of aggression – the look, the intake of breath, not sitting next to someone, not putting them on that special project – they all count and add up to a toxic environment.
  2. I don’t have any unconscious biases. This is frequently heard – often from ‘nice’ people who really believe it. It’s frightening to think we may not be 100% aware or in control of what we think and do. But brain science has always shown that, if you’re a human being, your brain operates through biases. We have evolved to constantly and unconsciously make immediate decisions based on limited data and pre-existing patterns. It has kept us safe. But in this new world – where the talent you want to work in your organisation does not walk like you, talk like you, act like you or smell like you – that wonderful brain is letting you down.
  3. I know what my unconscious biases are. By definition, unconscious bias is… unconscious. You may have a sense of what some of your biases are – but be blind to others. Keep in mind that our unconscious biases can often conflict with our conscious beliefs and values, and we may even hold negative unconscious biases against our own group. You are not your biases – any more than you are not responsible for the aggressive act of your child. But you are responsible for curbing them, educating and dealing with them.
  4. As everyone’s biased, we can reduce conversation about racism/sexism, etc. Unless you have been living under a stone, you will know that now is the time to face these conversations and tackle them directly. This is not an excuse, it is not mitigation – it’s a huge call to learn more about how these unconscious biases work with the conscious ones to create systemic biases in our communities and organisations.
  5. Since unconscious bias is unconscious, there’s nothing I can do about it. Excellent suggestions abound about how to mitigate the effect of negative unconscious bias in talent management and hiring practices through awareness, calibration and effective behaviours. But you have to want to – and you have to be humble enough to first recognise that your reactions are being controlled by these biases.


Practical ways to tackle unconscious bias

  • Awareness of what your particular unconscious biases are is the first step towards tackling them. Become aware of who you feel ‘comfortable’ with – and who you don’t. Once you observe this, begin to observe the opposite. What are the groups you don’t feel like that around? You are then on your way to exploring the hidden assumptions we all make every day.
  • Empathy is key, particularly ‘perspective taking’. The ability to feel or imagine what another person feels or might feel by taking some time to have an introductory discussion around career goals, relationships or hobbies can positively impact the relationship with that person before you move on to speak about work.
  • Exposure to other groups, the differences between the groups, and individuals in the group and their successes helps to challenge stereotypes that may have been built up in your mind. Mixing with a variety of people outside your traditional circle helps break down assumptions.
  • Use positive stereotype imagery to imagine alternatives to any negative ones you may have in your mind. This positive and proactive approach to changing stereotypes involves considering the diversity within your social and work groups, as well as the many examples of those you don’t know personally – such as athletes, politicians and celebrities – who break the stereotypes.

Micro-affirmations are small gestures of respect and inclusion – and can help you to become more consciously fair. More focus given to listening, inclusion, valuing and engaging with those from all groups helps to make the workplace a more equitable environment.

Above all, away from the headlines about unconscious bias training, the real key to progress in tackling the issue lies in ’embedding’. No matter how life changing the training, however robust the science that is shared, a ‘one and done’ training approach does not work. Training is not a miracle pill, particularly when it comes to unconscious bias.

The focus needs to be on embedding the training, whether that is a series of conversations leaders have with their teams following the training – or video nudges that interrupt you just before an interview or at talent management time.

Regularly reigniting the learning is the secret of success. Keeping that conversation alive – and creating an environment where we call in clearly biased statements and actions – is essential.


About the author

Angela Peacock is global director of diversity and inclusion at training consultancy PDT Global



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