Unconscious Bias: An introduction

21st April 2015

Marshall ACM caught up with Dan Robertson to find out more about Unconscious Bias, how it affects decisions in the workplace and why it’s an essential area that businesses need to recognise in order to compete in the modern global economy.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Historically, social scientists used to think that certain people would hold negative perceptions or views about people that were different to them. The notion of stereotypes and prejudices was discussed at the conscious level. This was known as ‘Conscious Prejudice’. However, developments in neuroscience now demonstrate that many biases are held at the subconscious level. This is known as ‘Unconscious Bias’ and is clearly different from conscious prejudice.

The brain processes information in a certain way, we gather millions of bits of information. What happens at the unconscious level is that we categorise this information. We categorise people by gender, ethnicity and a whole range of other social categories, such as disability, body size, and profession – if they are a police officer or CEO – and other social labels. This categorisation is useful for human beings as we use these visual clues to make assessments of people.

The obvious problem is that we take these random categories and we start to make positive or negative views based on our relationships with others. If someone looks and sounds like me, if we have a similar background, I am much more likely to give a positive attribution to them. If someone is different, I’ll be more likely to give them a negative attribution.

The consequence of this are numerous. For example, in recruitment and selection, if someone looks or sounds like you in a series of job interviews, you’re much more likely to recruit that person. Even if someone has a name that sounds like you, you’re more likely to hire them – and bin those with names on CVs you can’t pronounce.

There are other ways Unconscious Bias has an impact, such as who we want in our teams, who we give work to, and who you socialise with.

What other areas of work does Unconscious Bias affect?

Work allocation is a very much a key area affected by Unconscious Bias. If a colleague shares similar traits with you, you will make several assumptions about that person:

  • Trust: We are more likely to trust someone like us, either that’s gender, ethnicity or another social labels.

  • Competence: When we’re allocating stretch work (work that has high business impact or visibility to the client), you’re likely to give that work to someone in your peer group, e.g. someone who went to the same university, or has similar work experience.

If you deliver high visibility work, clients will come into your business network. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as ‘Confirmation Bias’ kicks in. They do the work and do it well, confirming your decision in the first place. The next time a piece of work comes in, you’ll give that work to the same type of person. This creates a cycle where you’re giving work to your business network and this stretch work lets them progress in their career, leaving others behind.

This bias also applies to performance management, where you are much more likely to score higher in work-related assessments if there is an Affinity Bias with those giving the performance assessment. When an Affinity Bias escalates, this can start to affect performance and pay.

How do we control Unconscious Bias?

Lots of people undertake Unconscious Bias training. For example, you can take the Implicit Bias Test, which was developed by Professors Greenwald and Banaji at Harvard University. This tool is able to measure your levels of Unconscious Bias.

We use a similar tool with our global business clients as part of the Unconscious Bias education awareness programme. Everyone from senior execs to middle managers use this tool to identify their own Unconscious Biases and use that to cultivate mindfulness. Recognising we all have Unconscious Bias is part of the process to bias control.

Some organisations are good at making sure all of their staff are politically correct, but this raises anxiety and makes people hesitant to raise conversations around things like race. The problem with this is that making staff uncomfortable about discussing issues means they’ re not mindful of your biases and so can’t control them. Organisations need to make people comfortable about discussing sensitive issues so they can raise awareness of potential biases.

What other patterns related to Unconscious Bias are there?

You’re not born with a bias, they are learned through socialisation. But they become wired in the human brain through experiences and the patterns we see. Positive contact with people affects Unconscious Bias, as it helps these biases become wired into the human brain.

We don’t generally think about patterns, but patterns in society might develop as early as primary education. Primary teachers tend to be female, whereas financial executives tend to be male.

Another example is that with black cabs in London, drivers tend to be male and white. Where as private cabs like Uber drivers tends to be male but non-white.

These are just some examples of patterns that are going on, but we generally don’t notice them. But if you can become mindful and recognise the people who don’t fall into that pattern, then you break the pattern of unconscious bias.

One way to break your Unconscious Bias is to attend networking events, like a women in business-focused event. This helps to break your neurological process and break the pattern by helping you control the bias through connecting people who are different from the normal pattern.

If you’re in a room of 100 women it’s difficult to say that all women are the same, with the same career aspiration. Go to a women in business event and you’ll be talking to a room of 100 different people with different ambitions. This is known as Individuating’ , where positive contact with people who break social norms are shown to mediate Unconscious Bias.

Can you tell us more about other biases?

Affinity Bias simply means that you are likely have an affinity with someone who is like you. I might have an affinity to white males, but that also depends on my social upbringing. I did my degree at Nottingham University, so I might have an affinity with anyone who went to Nottingham University. You can see how I start to make assumptions about people like me.

I like I think of myself as smart, so they must be smart! I like going to the gym 4 days a week, I know others who go the gym. I would thus tend to form positive views about them.

You also have a common connectivity with lots of people. You like people to are like you. If you like them and they like you, you start to trust them more than other people. And in the workplace, trust is critical.

There is also Beauty Bias. If a person is viewed as traditionally good looking we are more likely, unconsciously to trust them and they are more likely to be hired than others perceived as less attractive. They are also seen as more social than less good looking people. This is important in the modern workplace, which demands high levels of social intelligence, effective communication, and high levels of team working. Those seen as beautiful are given a special but undeserved confidence in the workplace.

Why is recognising Unconscious Bias important for businesses?

All the research around Unconscious Bias is comprehensive and pretty indisputable. It’ s an interesting thing that most people would suggest that their decision making process is objective, rational and they are in control. But what we know from neuroscience and social psychology is that most of that is not true. Most of our decisions are irrational and emotional. If we can be aware of that, we are more likely to control our biases.

The research is saying that if you have affinities in business, then you’re likely to make errors in decisions. You can fall into Groupthink and be less likely to have insights into customers and stakeholders. If you’re aware of your biases, you’re much more likely to be challenging to each other, be innovative, and have different insights into customers.

This is important from a business perspective and important in the global economy due to movement of people. The global economy gives you access to global customers and technology. This century will be defined by innovation in technology, pressures of green economy and sustainability. But it also continues to be defined by diversity, which is why it’ s important to recognise Unconscious Bias in the workplace.

Those businesses that start to understand this will get sustainability, productivity and profitability benefits. So in the modern business world, you need to be aware of Unconscious Bias in order to start controlling them.

Marshall ACM offer a range of courses on Unconscious Bias and other management training. View our Unconscious Bias training products or get in touch to discuss how we can help create a bespoke Unconscious Bias training course for your organisation.

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