I am a hopeless optimist. It’s one of the reasons I love delivering training on unconscious bias: it’s truly one area in life where if a majority of people made a few small changes to address it, the positive repercussions would be significant.
Unconscious bias, simply put, is an automatic mental shortcut that helps us wade through the millions of bits of information coming at us at any given time. If we had to think about everything every time, we would do nothing else. Unconscious bias tells us what to ignore (what the brain has learned to interpret as safe) and what to pay attention to (the unexpected that may be dangerous).
Where does unconscious bias come from?
I believe that unconscious bias helps us solve two problems: the first is our need to turn chaos into order. The second is to help us find where and to whom we belong. For example, recent research suggests that babies as young as three months old have a preference for faces from their own ethnic group (this is not true of newborns, indicating that this is a learned behaviour). So, unconscious bias – or looking for patterns and finding an in-group – is a survival mechanism so basic that it is below our conscious radar. As such, it usually shapes our decision-making without our being aware of it.
The problem is that these biases are only a guideline; they’re not always right. In fact, Daniel Kahneman, who has written extensively about bias, famously called the unconscious mind a machine for jumping to conclusions.
A recent example of unconscious bias in the workplace
An example of this is to be found in how we are incredibly good at coming up with very credible stories – the less information we have, the better. This is a bias called the narrative fallacy. A few months ago, I worked with a group who were going through a redundancy process. They told me about how their managers had, two years previously, handpicked a few of them for additional training. Now, in the present, they found that the selection criteria for redundancy included training. They were convinced that their managers had known this all those years ago, in order to rid themselves of the workers they considered dead wood. Obviously, this wasn’t the case at all, but it was certainly a believable story.
Forewarned, of course, is forearmed. In the workplace, there are a number of things we can do to slow down decision-making so that people don’t jump to conclusions, or at least not as much. Here are some of my tips:
- Before meetings, have all attendees write down their views of the subjects that will be discussed. This prevents groupthink.
- Listen to the stories that people tell – they indicate where there is a vacuum of information and can help you to provide the facts and information that will counter those stories with what is really happening.
- Have each individual in a teamwork backwards from what they imagine is the worst case scenario for a business decision: have them detail what could have gone wrong to get there.
Good luck and feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.