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How to recognise and overcome your unconscious bias

8th November 2020

Developments in neuroscience demonstrates that many biases are held at the subconscious level. Unconscious bias is the result of messages from a wide array of sources introduced into our subconscious from an early age. We all harbour prejudices, and everyone is subject to their own unconscious bias. Many of these prejudices that are deeply held in our unconscious can unintentionally influence how we act toward one another in our organisations.

Our brains process information every day, and unconsciously, we can begin to categorise this information into such areas as:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Disability
  • Body size
  • Profession

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.

‘Listening without bias or distraction is the greatest value you can pay another person’ – Denis Waitley

Applied to the workplace, Unconscious bias might determine whether or not:

  • The best candidate gets a job
  • The most suitable colleague is allocated responsibility for an important project
  • A performance review is aligned with bonus payment
  • Promotions are given on merit or favouritism
  • Clients feel that they have received a good service
  • Allegations of discrimination are upheld in tribunal

 So how can we fully understand and overcome unconscious bias?

  1. Take an Implicit Associations Test

A good place to start is with an Implicit Associations Test (IAT). Developed by Tony Greenwald – a University of Washington Professor – who started researching unconscious bias in 1994. The test takes five minutes and cuts through the perceptions of our own biases on gender, religion, race, sexuality and more.

  1. Recognise Your Own Biases

You need to be honest with yourself about the stereotypes which affect you. For example, do you interview men and women differently? What makes a male or female better qualified to climb higher in your company? What are your reasons for terminating an employee?

  1. Increase Exposure to Biases

Declare your intentions about valuing a diverse workforce. Saying words out loud, or writing them down, sends a clear message to everyone you work with, as well as to your own subconscious.

  1. Surround Yourself with Positive Words and Images

Surround yourself with positive words and images about people you might have stereotypical thoughts about to help eliminate negative biases.

  1. Visualise a Positive Interaction

Psychological research shows that visualising a particular situation can create the same effects behaviorally and psychologically as actually experiencing the situation.

  1. Encourage Colleagues to Hold Each Other Accountable

Part of making a concerted effort to eliminate bias is by working together. This is especially key when it comes to hidden bias. Awareness is the first step to enacting any sort of change, so help those on your team to be more aware of their behaviors so they are able to self-correct.

  1. Examine Company Processes

Identify particular elements in company processes that function as entry points for bias. Start by taking a look at these four things:

  • How people are hired
  • How work is assigned
  • What happens during performance evaluations
  • How compensation is determined

Where does bias have the opportunity to influence each process?

  1. Learn About Those Different From You

A really good way to overcome unconscious bias is to get a good understanding of those that you deem different from you. This can be done by reading about or watching TV programs/documentaries/films about a particular group. A greater understanding should ideally create empathy and remove bias.

‘Look upon Unconscious Bias as fallen leaves…accept, analyse, understand, reflect, sweep, collect, throw away…’ – Anita Nahal