Unconscious bias at work: what is it and how can I overcome it?

Unconscious bias at work: what is it and how can I overcome it?

Posted 27 Feb

While we probably don't realise it, unconscious bias is something that affects all of us in our day-to-day lives. Because it would be far too time-consuming for us to consciously evaluate every minute decision we face during the day, our brains are designed to orchestrate the majority of our thoughts and actions at a subconscious level.


Our capacity for rapid decision-making is useful from a survival standpoint; however, it can present complications in terms of how we interact within society, not least at work. It essentially means that we are hard-wired to like and trust people who look and act like us, who come from similar backgrounds or who've lived through similar experiences. 


As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as open-minded, how we operate in the work place – whether at a hiring or managerial level, or as an entry-level employee – may be tainted. In unwittingly categorising people according to their race, nationality, gender, educational background, or any number of potential indicators, we risk jeopardising our professional relationships and missing out on opportunities. 


The concept of unconscious bias has become increasingly relevant in the modern workplace. For, as we now know, diversity is extremely good for business: according to a McKinsey study, gender-diverse organisations are 15% more likely to outperform financial expectations, while ethnically diverse companies are expected to outperform them by 35%.


Fortunately, it's possible to reduce the impact that unconscious bias has on how we act in the workplace and react to certain situations. The first step in the process is recognising our biases and admitting them to ourselves. 


The Implicit Association Test (IAT) has been developed by researchers at Harvard University for this very purpose. The test requires the participant to make a number of quick-fire selections based on a series of indicators around ideas on race, gender, nationality or sexuality. Any low-riding social preconceptions are then highlighted.


The idea is that having brought these biases to the attention of the conscious brain they will start to dissipate. A useful follow-up exercise involves visualising groups or individuals towards whom we hold a negative bias and then picturing them in a positive context. 


While we're not at fault for what collects at the bottom of our subconscious, that's not to say that this can't prove damaging to our career prospects or to people around us. As is often the case, it comes down to self-awareness and having the emotional intelligence to recognise and work to correct a potential weakness.