Understanding and Addressing
Unconscious Bias

See also: Understanding Others

Unconscious biases are assumptions, beliefs or experiences that influence our thinking or views—but which we are not aware are doing so. They may date back many years, and have become so ingrained in our thinking that we no longer actively consider them. However, this can be a problem when we are interacting with others, especially in the workplace.

Unconscious biases, if unchecked, can reinforce stereotypes. They may also reduce diversity of both people and ideas in the workplace. It is therefore advisable to take steps to surface unconscious biases in yourself and others. This will allow you to address them and reduce their impact.

A Shortcut for Mental Processing

During your lifetime, your brain processes millions of bits of information. To save time in doing so, it builds ‘shortcuts’ using information that it has seen before.

For example, when you see a dog, you don’t have to think what type of animal it is, or whether it is dangerous. In the space of a few milliseconds, your brain will make that judgement based on your previous experience of dogs of different types and sizes, whether the dog is with its owner, on a lead and how the dog is behaving. If you were once attacked by a particular type of dog, however, you may be frightened of those dogs, and move away even if it is on a lead and behaving perfectly calmly.

These ‘shortcuts’ are incredibly useful to us, because they shorten the time that it takes to consider everyday encounters and incidents, and they allow us to navigate through life without being in a constant state of alert.

However, our previous experience is not always a guide to what will happen in the future.

Using the example above, the dog that you are seeing now may be very friendly and would never attack you or anyone else. However, you are likely to find it hard to overcome your instinct to move away from those dogs.

This is a very simple example—but you can see how this type of unconscious learning might affect how you behave around other people.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias does not only come from our own experience.

It can also come from what we have heard from other people, especially those we respect, or from societal beliefs, or even when we are influenced by others without realising it.

There are many different types of unconscious bias, including:

  1. Gender bias, also known as sexism. People are more conscious of this nowadays, but it can still occur.

    Yes, really…

    Vanessa was at her desk one morning when her colleague’s phone rang. She dialled the number to pick up the call and answered with her name. The woman on the other end of the phone asked if her colleague was there.

    “No,” Vanessa said politely, “But I can take a message if you like.”

    “Oh, are you his PA?” came back the response. “I need to organise a meeting with him.”

    “No,” Vanessa replied, still polite, but with a slight edge to her voice. “I’m his manager.”

    Would this have happened the same way if the positions had been reversed? It seems unlikely.

  2. Age bias, also known as ageism. Again, people are more conscious of this, but it still happens. It may take the form of jokes about Gen Z’s lack of commitment or work ethic, or Boomers’ inability to use technology—and while it remains a joke, it shouldn’t be a problem. However, regularly repeated jokes tend to become stereotypes, and that can be dangerous if they lead to assumptions about job roles and abilities.

  3. Confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek out information that confirms our previous views. We are generally less open-minded than we think. Where we have an opinion, we tend to put more weight on information that confirms our opinion than any that is contradictory.

  4. The halo effect, where we place undue weight on one particular characteristic or trait, and allow that to give us an overall positive impression. The opposite is called the horns effect. An example might be if we know that someone has worked in a particular place, or has a particular degree, and we therefore think that they will be good (or bad) at their job.

  5. Affinity bias is the tendency to prefer people or opinions that are more similar to us. The problem here is that it leads to homogeneity in the workplace, and therefore poorer performance. There is more about the importance of diversity in the workplace in our page on Diversity in Groups and Teams.

  6. Conformity bias is when we adopt opinions to fit in with the group (and there is more about this in our page on Group Decision-Making).

  7. Anchor bias describes the way in which the first piece of information we encounter tends to set our expectations. You see this in sales, where the person who first makes an offer, or names a price, sets the expectations about roughly where the negotiation will go. However, it also happens in meetings, when one person expresses an opinion, and then everyone else is arguing for or against that opinion, rather than considering other options.

There are many other forms of unconscious bias, some with names, and others without. We all have our own biases and prejudices, based on our previous experience, our beliefs, and our influences.

The real question is whether you know yours—and whether you take steps to avoid them influencing your actions.

The Effect of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases can have strong and unfortunate effects on workplaces and organisations.

For example, they tend to lead to less fair decisions being made about individuals. This, in turn, often leads to less workplace diversity (because most of our unconscious biases exist to make us feel safer—and that tends to mean sticking to what we know).

Over time, a less diverse workplace leads to poorer decision making, often characterised by groupthink and other problems (and there is more about this in our page on Group Decision-Making).

Preventing unconscious bias is therefore important to attract a more diverse workforce, which will in turn improve decision making, encourage creativity, improve employee engagement, and increase productivity.

This may sound like a stretch—but time after time, research studies have shown the positive effect of a more diverse workplace.

Preventing Unconscious Bias

It is therefore essential to surface and prevent unconscious bias in decision making processes—and not just around recruitment.

There are several ways in which you can do this, including:

  • Involve a diverse group of people in making important decisions. This will help to ensure that different perspectives and views are brought to the table. However, you also need to be sure that people feel free to express their opinions.

  • Deliberately seek to broaden the diversity of your workforce, across a range of characteristics (for example, age, gender, background, and experience). Where you have two equal candidates for a role, consider taking the one who will increase diversity the most, rather than the one who is most like everyone else.

  • Seek opinions anonymously or share them ahead of any discussion. This will allow people to express their opinion freely without worrying what others will think, and the first opinion will not have an anchor effect.

  • If a decision feels wrong, ask yourself why. If you find it hard to articulate why something feels ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it may go back to a value that you developed a long time ago, possibly in childhood. It is worth examining your feelings more carefully to ensure that your value is based on something rational, and not a childhood fear. This will help to surface your own unconscious biases.

  • Be open about your reasons for holding certain views—and be open to changing them when new evidence is presented. The key to resolving unconscious biases is to surface them without embarrassment and be prepared to talk about them. Open and honest discussion will help everyone in the group to be aware of what is going on, and to provide new information that may change the situation.

  • Gather plenty of information to support your decision-making. Never use the first piece of information alone, but always do other research.

  • Have formal processes for decision making and problem solving—and use them. For example, our page on Effective Decision Making: A Framework describes one possible option that you might use. You might also adopt specific processes to remove unconscious biases from recruitment, such as always anonymising applications or CVs before they are sent to the recruiting manager and removing any information about age or gender.

  • Document the reasons for decisions. It is good practice to keep records about why decisions are made, and particularly the evidence behind the decision. This should be happening anyway, especially for recruitment and promotion decisions in case of any legal challenges.

  • Create an environment where people feel able to ask question and challenge authority and decisions. This is not always easy—but there is also plenty of evidence that workplaces that do this make better decisions.

An Important Take-Home Message

The real lesson from all of this is that we all have unconscious biases, and they do affect our thinking.

The only way to overcome these biases in ourselves and others is to surface and challenge them. When you are more aware, you are better able to overcome these biases, and prevent them from affecting your workplace.