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Getting Your Mind Around Unconscious Bias: Three Simple Strategies

Which of these apples would taste best? Concerns about unconscious bias in the workplace are not new, but have received a lot of media attention lately due Starbucks’ decision to close for an entire day to provide training to all staff. It is important to be talking about ethnic, gender, even age bias in the workplace, but we should not expect to “train away” something that is an inherent part of being human.

When I work with executives and their teams on managing unconscious bias, my goal is to provide strategies to help recognize – and therefore avoid acting on – unconscious bias. Quite literally, the goal is give our brains the opportunity to form conscious thought that serves to check our unconscious biases. As the term “unconscious bias” indicates, no matter how well intentioned we may be, we are not aware of the filters we use to sort all the incoming information and the subsequent judgments we are forming. So how do we address work with judgments that we are not conscious of having?

First, let’s understand what we mean by “unconscious bias”. Put simply, it refers to that set of mental associations that are formed in a mere nanosecond. These associations work like cognitive filters that are helpful from an evolutionary standpoint to sort the myriad of stimuli that come at us from all directions and enable us to function efficiently. But as they are not conscious, they are not open to easy introspection.

Second, it is helpful to understand how our unconscious bias is formed. Our cognitive filters are based on our experience from the moment we are born – what we learn about our world directly and indirectly. Factors such as where we grew up, cultural norms of our parents, travel, and even our childhood friends can all influence these filters. Most of us recognize that much of our experience is greatly shaped by our personal culture, but often we do not see it as “culture” because it is simply our reality.

The unconscious is very powerful. Scientific studies demonstrate:

  • People often make a decision based on an initial ‘gut reaction’ without being able to identify the true reason for the decision.

    • Example: In one well-regarded study, customers at a department store were asked to choose the best quality item out of four identical products. The vast majority chose the product that was placed on the right hand side of the display, even though all were identical. Yet when asked to explain their choice, customers gave a wide variety of reasons, but not a single one mentioned as relevant where the product was placed.

  • Similarly, we are influenced by many factors we are not aware of.

    • Example: A Yale study found that people judged others to be more generous and caring if they had just held a warm cup of coffee before meeting them and more cool and distant if they had held an iced coffee.

  • The logical part of the brain (the cerebral cortex) is the last to know when (or precisely why) a decision has been made.  Those initial fast judgments we make are made by what is known as reptilian brain – it is quick to protect us from danger – but not so capable of forming well-reasoned opinions. And perhaps even more importantly, once we have taken in information and drawn a conclusion (whether we know it or not) we seek out information that confirms what we have decided and tend to ignore information that is disconfirming. The explanations our conscious minds provide are often unreliable, though they may seem convincingly logical to us at the time.

So how can we manage our unconscious biases? When working with executives and their teams, I focus on strategies that use the conscious mind to help manage the proclivities of the unconscious. Here is a distillation of three of those strategies:

  1. Don’t rush to judgment.  This might seem like a cliche, but there is science behind it. By slowing down, we give our brains more time to process. This allows us to better use what we know in our conscious minds to balance what is in our unconscious. This mental framework encourages better outcomes.

  2. Practice assuming the best of people. Let’s say someone abruptly cuts in front of you in heavy traffic. Rather than reacting with rage, try adopting a positive mindset and consider that they might not simply be a jerk but might be lost or distracted thinking about an ill family member. And there is science behind this as well: working to keep a positive outlook soothes the primitive part of the brain that reacts with anger or fear. A calm amygdala enables you to use your whole brain in your response.

  3. Practice curiosity – both about yourself and others. Use internal questioning to challenge your assumptions. But remember, our logical minds can come up with reasonable explanations for decisions that were made based on unconscious bias. When another person’s behavior seems incongruous with your expectations for what is the “norm”, remember that cultural norms differ greatly. In college, I lived above my landlady and her middle-school aged kids. Periodically in the mid-afternoon, we would hear loud voices, banging, crying, and occasional pleas for help. We would look at each other and wonder if we should call the police. But we soon learned that if we waited 10 minutes and went downstairs we would find them all happily playing cards together, puzzled about why we might have been concerned. They were simply more outwardly emotive than I had experienced in my childhood.

It is important to remember that addressing unconscious bias is a process – we can never completely eliminate the filters we bring to the workplace, but with practice we can effectively employ strategies to minimize their negative effect.

I hope you found this article thought provoking. What ways do you suspect that unconscious bias may be inhibiting top performance in your organization? If you would like to discuss this or any other challenge you may be facing with your team, Contact me to schedule a 20 minute call with me to see how we might work together. 

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