What Is Unconscious Bias and Why Does It Matter?

Over the last 18 months we’ve seen a dramatic increase in requests for training solutions connected to building diversity and managing unconscious bias.  Clients are typically looking for training to grow awareness and understanding. We then challenge them to explore actual biases in their organisation and how to mitigate against them. This blog post tackles the first steps … and rather than talking about them let’s start this blog with one of the ways we often start the training.

How we often start training sessions on unconscious bias – and why…

In our training programmes we typically start with brain teasers to get trainees engaged and interested right away. The value of these brain teasers is the discussions that they lead to, where trainees can link the bias they have experienced in a simple quiz question to a real issue or example from their professional lives. The little ‘jolt’ they get from getting a simple question wrong can be a powerful way of nudging them to think differently about what they see and experience in the workplace, and lead to actions.

Try it for yourself. This post has nine questions that should get you thinking!

If you struggled to find the right answers, you were probably using intuition to solve the two problems. Intuition is a great tool that allows our minds to make quick decisions using only limited data. Our intuitions were vital to our survival in the past; if you were walking through The Black Forest 2500 years ago and you heard a loud roar behind you, RUN! Turning around to analyse the source of the noise would not have been a good idea. We still carry this intuitive decision-making tool today, but our modern world is more complex, less black and white and often requires a different decision-making approach.

Why do we start our training with these kinds of exercises? Simply because the best way of understanding unconscious bias is to experience it for yourself.

But I thought intuition was useful – how does it lead to biases?

In order to make quick decisions, our intuitive system uses filters to remove all but the most obvious information. This is why many people struggle with the 9 questions: the obvious answer is not always the correct one. One of the most common filters is ‘bias’ and this is where unconscious bias comes from; it’s simply our intuitive system filtering out information which is not readily available in favour of a quick, simple answer. Watch the short video below to learn more about this thinking system and its impact.

Why does unconscious bias matter in the workplace?

Over-using our intuitive ‘System 1’ thinking can have negative consequences in our professional lives. To make this much more concrete, consider three common challenges our clients share with us:

  1. We see the same kinds of people always apply for and get jobs in our organisation.
  2. Our organisation is unable to find new solutions that work in a market that is increasingly complex and ambiguous.
  3. Our organisation wants to be more agile, but some of our people are reluctant to change the way we do things.

Each of these challenges reveal different types of biases that can be hard to overcome. Let’s take a closer look into this:

  1. We see the same kinds of people always apply for and get jobs in our organisation.

We quite naturally warm to people who are similar to us. The Similarity Bias can be harmless in everyday life, but in recruitment it can have more serious consequences. I saw this for myself several years ago; I was interviewing with a colleague and when one of the candidates left the room I turned to my colleague and said, “I really like that candidate”. My colleague replied, “Of course you do, she’s just like you!”. I suddenly realised that if my colleague hadn’t been there, I would never have noticed this bias and how it was affecting my decision-making.

  1. Our organisation is unable to find new solutions that work in a market that is increasingly complex and ambiguous.

Information is king, but we tend to focus on information that we have to hand, and this can limit our ability to find new kinds of solutions. The Expedience Bias pushes us to make quick decisions and avoid too much deliberation. Above all it prevents us from spending time on finding out what we don’t know. What was it that prevented Kodak and Nokia from seeing the obvious technological changes happening around them?

  1. Our organisation wants to be more agile, but some of our people are reluctant to change the way we do things.

This is a very familiar challenge we hear from managers on our change management training programmes. The Experience Bias goes to the heart of why some organisations find it so hard to change; we simply over-estimate the relevance of past experience. The danger is that we can focus much more on the risks of change than the rewards.

What steps can we take to manage these biases?

Our unconscious thinking is responsible for 99% of the routine decisions we make. So clearly, engaging our conscious, reflective system is going to be a challenge. The trick is not to fight against bias; it’s a natural product of our brains. Instead, seek to understand what could be biasing our decisions and then makes changes to the way we do things in order to mitigate the biases. During training sessions this is where our clients begin to develop action plans. Here are some ideas our clients have had based on the three challenges above.

  1. Remove personal details from application forms, use standard interview templates and ensure recruitment panels have diverse members.
  2. Bring in diverse views from inside and outside the organisation by setting up employee discussion forums and finding out how customers’ needs are changing.
  3. Focus on the long-term benefits and reasons for change, address people’s fears, and ask – What will happen if we do nothing?

How to make changes that stick

The only way to remove biases is to acknowledge and accept them and then to do things differently. This is how to make the changes stick. But we still need to know whether what we have changed is working. We can measure the impact of changes by answering questions like:

  • What’s changed, or what’s different?
  • What impact has this had on the business?
  • Why did this work?

To summarise an approach that works:

  1. Analyse current challenges for underlying biases
  2. Mitigate biases by making changes to processes and approaches
  3. Measure the impact

Finally, here is a Reading List [https://www.amazon.de/hz/wishlist/ls/2F0M10AQKSIL6/ref=nav_wishlist_lists_4?_encoding=UTF8&type=wishlist] of the books our clients have found valuable in approaching this topic.

We hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you would like to know more about our experience of working with clients in this area, feel free to contact us.