Unconscious bias, or implicit association, plays a part in all of our lives and how we lead others. Last week we discussed what this kind of bias is and what the types of unconscious bias are. Today we are jumping into finding it in our own lives and then strategies to address it in an actionable way.
Discover and recognize your unconscious bias
It can be hard to see our unconscious bias. It’s called unconscious for a reason! Instead of tracking your brain for what basis you may have, look at it from a simpler perspective.
Think about the decisions that you make that center around people that you don’t give much thought to. Take a moment to think about the reasons that you made the decision that you did. Do you task a female leader as the one to provide emotional support when someone is going through a hard time, because you feel like women are more empathetic? Do you put a male in charge of lofty sales goals because you feel like men are more goal-oriented and action-focused?
Taking time to reflect and assess the root causes of some of your decision-making processes is s a great place to start in recognizing and discovering your own unintentional bias.
Take the test
Harvard University can help you get a jump start in uncovering your unconscious bias through a free self-assessment. Once you enter the site, you can choose from 15 different areas of gender, race, sexuality, and a number of other things to assess yourself in. I know that I have an affinity towards our Native American population in the U.S. The assessment proved just that. While I consider native Americans and Whites equal, I have a slight automatic association of American with Native Americans and Foreign with Whites.
Interestingly, more than 50% of the near 250,000 that have taken the Native American test first reported as viewing both groups equally, but only 20% completed the test that way. The majority found out that a majority of people have a bias towards Whites over Native Americans.
Focus on the tree
There is a saying about people that miss the big picture that goes, “They can’t see the forest for the trees.” meaning that they get derailed in the specifics or something not important and in turn miss the big picture of what’s going on around them. To help in growing through your bias I want you to try to see the tree instead of the forest.
The forest in the example is the collection of the characteristics of a person’s background that you believe to be true. Instead of focusing on all the preconceived notions and mental baggage that we attach to people, focus on the individual right in front of you. Let their actions and words stand on their own. Give them a chance to build trust and a reputation with you based on their own merits and abilities.
Discuss and learn
After you have uncovered some of the biases that you may have, be authentic and vulnerable to discuss them with others, particularly with people from socially dissimilar groups. Many larger organizations are starting business (or employee) resource groups that bring together people with similar backgrounds or interests. Join up with some of these groups to learn more and challenge the notions that you have about them.
If you don’t have BRGs or ERGs at your workplace, be mindful to introduce yourself to a different view online or in your community. As funny as it sounds, I think it’s easier to find this in the community than it is online. Your social media algorithms push content that aligns with your current thoughts and preferences and suppresses opposing views. (See The Social Dilemma) You’ll need to go out of your way to find it on social media, but it’s out there.
We’ve all got unconscious bias. Understand what it is and how it impacts your leadership decisions on a regular basis. Use the techniques and tips above to begin addressing those ideas and become a more inclusive leader as a result.
Unconscious bias is something that each of us deals with on a daily basis. If you had a flat tire would you ask a man or woman to help you? Who would you ask to help sew up a hole in your shirt? Who is more likely to ask for directions if they are lost? These are just a few everyday examples of how our brain subconsciously connects the dots for us without us even realizing it.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias consists of learned stereotypes about certain groups of people that we form outside of our own conscious awareness. It’s learned and automatic, unintentional, and seated deeply in our beliefs. It also affects our behavior and while we have a tendency to think unconscious bias is about race, it also includes, age, gender, orientation, and religious beliefs.
Types of unconscious bias
Unconscious bias covers a spectrum of how you access and interact with others as an individual and how you operate and plan as a team.
Affinity bias: Affinity bias is the tendency to gravitate towards people that are like you. We all have a few people at work that we gravitate towards more than others. It’s likely because there is some common link there. Maybe it’s shared interest, personality type, same life stage, or any number of other areas; those commonalities act as a subconscious magnet that draws you together. The idea itself is not a negative one, it’s when these relationships come at the cost of excluding others that you need to guard against them.
Halo effect: The Halo effect says that you think everything about a person is good because you like them. This is a piece of unconscious bias that I consistently coach hiring leaders about when they are looking for new talent. Oftentimes, when we make bad hiring decisions, it’s because of a couple of things.
A) Asked the wrong questions that led the candidate to the answer you wanted instead of motivation based questions that give you a good understanding of the person.
B) There was some kind of spark during the conversation where you connected and genuinely liked the person.
Pair the affinity bias of thinking they are good because you know like them with softball questions and you know have a recipe that allows the wrong fit to make it on your team.
Perception bias: This is what you believe about a group based on stereotypes and assumptions which makes it nearly impossible to be objective about individuals. Perception bias is probably what most people think of when they about unconscious bias. It’s the idea that you assume something about a person because of the group that they are affiliated with.
Confirmation bias: This is a tendency to seek to confirm your preconceived notions about a group of people or an individual. We saw this flare-up immensely in the summer of 2020 through BLM protest, the coining of the phrase “Karen” and the lead-up to the election.
I coach about this idea quite a bit when I do talent calibrations with others (A process where you rate your team and vet them with your peers and leader). These assessments usually around some kind of box that has different categories or ratings. I encourage leaders not to share about what box they put the person in, instead share strictly about their performance and potential. When we start out with “I put them here because….” you are laying a proverbial bread crumb trail that leads you to the pre-determined destination.
Groupthink: This is the loss of self-identity in order to fit into a culture. Here you will mimick other’s thoughts, suppress your own opinions, and readily agree with the consensus of the group.
Groupthink destroys creativity, leaves potentially large holes in your strategy is not going to be holistic in its approach, because it doesn’t consider other opinions or perspectives. This one requires some courage and vulnerability in order to overcome on the part of the participants. Organizations will sometimes put a limit to the time an assembled team is together or rotate new members in, in order to combat this trap that teams sometimes find themselves in.
Next week we’ll cover some tips in order to start overcoming some of your and your team’s unconscious bias and assumptions. In the meantime, I would encourage you to think about the above list as you go throughout your week. Think about your interaction (or lack of interaction) and put it through the lens of some of these types of biases. This will be the start of you increasing your effectiveness as a leader while opening yourself to new perspectives and talents of others that you may not have recognized yet.