We all like to think we are unprejudiced, inclusive and objective; but unconsciously, we tend to gravitate towards the people who look and think like us. Julie Lynch from PDT Global discusses the damaging effects unconscious bias can have on businesses and gives tips for reducing biases in the workplace.
21st century workplaces are becoming increasingly more diverse. Organisations that champion diversity and promote inclusion have been shown to be more innovative, creative and productive, so it is important to ensure that this diversity does not come under threat from unconscious bias.
In business, biases can be costly and cause us to make decisions that are not objective, which in turn may result in missed opportunities. Therefore, in order to attract and retain the best talent, organisations must create a climate of inclusion where everyone has the space to excel, a culture where employees are recruited and progressed purely because of their ability.
Here are some steps we can take to lessen the effects of unconscious bias on our businesses.
1. Be aware
The first step in unconscious bias reduction is being aware of what it is and how it can affect others. This awareness begins to ‘tip’ our unconscious into the conscious where we can be completely aware and begin to manage the bias and its effects. Individuals have subconscious preferences for certain people and objects, which unintentionally influence decision making.
As human beings, we process vast amounts of information; to simplify all of this information, our brains tend to categorise the world around us. This enables us to know what to expect and how to react around certain objects or situations. This also means that we automatically categorise other human beings.
Research shows that beliefs and values gained from family, culture and a lifetime of experiences heavily influence how we view and evaluate both others and ourselves. This was programmed into us originally as a protection mechanism in early man to rapidly identify our friends and enemies, but in today’s multi-faceted society, it can result in decisions and behaviours based on bias.
2. Question others and yourself
To reduce the effects of unconscious bias, question biases in yourself and raise awareness in others. Ask the following questions:
- Is my opinion factually true?
- Is it always factually true?
- What evidence do I have?
3. Create inclusive meeting practices
One of the ways your bias can affect others is via micro-behaviours during meetings. Here's how you can start to reduce the effects:
- Be aware of how you enter a meeting. Acknowledge everyone at the meeting, not just those you know. Be aware of how you greet them – a smile and a cheerful ‘hello’ is very different from a frown and a curt ‘hi’.
- Value others’ time as much as you value your own. Arrive on time and if you are late, apologise. Pay attention and ensure you are prepared.
- Do not always sit next to the same person at every meeting. If there is someone in the meeting you feel you may have a bias against, sit next to them.
- Limit interruptions, including checking your emails or using your phone. The impact of micro-behaviours associated with the use of technology should not be underestimated – even if a device is being used under the table!
- If you disagree with someone else’s opinion, respond constructively rather than giving a negative response that may stop this person from voicing their opinion again.
If you are managing a meeting, you can play a significant role in reducing the effects of unconscious bias, both within the meeting and in its outcomes.
- Solicit the opinions of everyone at the meeting. Remember not to always draw upon the same people’s opinions consistently but equally do not discount their opinion on this basis.
- Ensure the final decision is balanced and not influenced by the power a single individual may hold.
- Be open to challenges from all parties by asking for counter opinions and examples.
4. Create a supportive dialogue
We all have unconscious biases and can display micro-behaviours as a result of them. However, it can still be difficult to have and manage conversations about the giving or receiving of these micro-behaviours. Supportive phrases that can be used to help you approach the subject and ensure a constructive outcome include:
“I understand you have a belief that a single mother will not be right for this role”
Clarify (avoid assumptions)
“Am I missing something as I am still unclear as to how this has come about?”
“When you say, you feel clients would be unhappy, help me understand what you mean by that?”
Solve (moving forward)
“What would a better situation look like for you?”
Based on the above model and by consciously practicing the following exercises, you can take the first steps towards supporting others to question bias.
5. Take action
Behaviours may seem small and imperceptible but they can have enormous effects. Here is an example of how unconscious gender bias can feel and what can be done to reduce the effects:
Due to a crisis in the Singapore office, a manager must send a member of their team to resolve the issue that day. There are two candidates to choose from, both equally competent. They both have a spouse and two children and have both recently lost a parent. One is male and the other is female. The manager decides to send the male on the basis that they have a wife who will look after the children and they will be emotionally stronger than the female following the death of their parent. The manager does not seek the opinion of either of the team members.
What are the consequences?
- By not asking either party for their views, the manager would not be aware if, in light of their recent loss, the male chosen for the project did not feel emotionally robust enough to be away from his support system.
- The female may not put herself forward for future travel due to a feeling that she won’t be picked.
- It is highly likely that this will decrease the confidence of the female in question. A decrease in confidence can also have a number of effects including a decrease in quality of performance and therefore a decrease in selection for visible projects, leading to a vicious cycle.
What are the unconscious beliefs that led to this experience?
- Women are less emotionally stable than men and let their emotions impact their client relationships and decision-making ability.
- Women with children do not want to travel/be away from their children.
- Women with children must plan in advance/cannot travel at short notice.
- By making this decision I am looking after the woman’s best interest.
- Men are willing to travel at short notice as they do not have the same commitments as women.
- Men with spouses/long term partners are able to give more commitment to their job as their wife will look after the personal commitments.
How can I avoid these unconscious beliefs affecting my behaviour?
- Question your unconscious assumptions.
- Ask a colleague to evaluate your decisions.
- If you know that an individual has personal challenges, make your decision purely on competency and experience.
- Talk to both the individual and HR about any available resources to enable their participation.
What do I do if I have a similar experience?
Remember that the manager did not make the decision out of malice and is more than likely unaware that any form of bias entered their decision making process. You should also try to make them aware of their bias, as per point 2.
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