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Unconscious Bias

The human brain is a wonderful thing. It has to deal with enormous amounts of data and information in seconds and make thousands of decisions every day.

To help us manage all those decisions, our brain has constructed short cuts which mean that we don’t have to analyse and think about every single thing we do. Imagine if you had to ‘think about it’ every time you needed to open a jar, pull your pants on, brush your teeth…!

We have developed these short-cuts based on patterns, and those patterns are formed by our backgrounds and experience. Neuro-Science backs this up evidentially.

Try this puzzle for size to see how the brain uses those short cuts:

A bat and a ball costs €1.10

If the bat costs €1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

If you, like over 50% of the population, said 10c then you’d be wrong. But your answer will have come from your brain using a shortcut, which is what it does! We use instinct over analysis and that means we will sometimes get it wrong.

(If you want to know what the answer is, email me and I’ll be happy to tell you…!

So, when we tackle the issue of unconscious bias in our work and personal lives, we are the victims of our own success in that we are fooled by our brain’s shortcuts.

For example, we have all created social categories such as gender, age, size, appearance, accent, language, education, religious affiliations, political preferences, personality types, sexual preference…. You get the picture. Those category shortcuts are formed as a result of patterns that we have experienced throughout our lives so far and we will have filed some of them under ‘good’ and some under ‘bad’ or, some under ‘better than me’ and some under ‘not as good as me’. We will also have an affiliation bias for those people who are ‘like me’.

As with the previous example, these shortcuts mean that these decisions and assumptions are often wrong too.

This is what we refer to as ‘Unconscious Bias’. It means we have a preference for ‘types’ who we feel are either more like us, and therefore people we feel safe with, or people who we feel are more powerful than us, and therefore might help us to get what we need or to support our security and safety. It also means that we will have a bias against other ‘types’ which will be based on those patterns that have formed as a result of our background, our experiences and the people who have influenced our thinking throughout our lives.

Interestingly it has been proven that even women have a bias against other women in senior and leadership roles. We might not even realise it, but it is found to be there over and over again in studies such as those run by Harvard for many years in which they gather data about bias from all over the world. You can have a go and test your own unconscious bias via this link.

Here’s an example that demonstrates this:

Look at the words that we tend to associate with male leaders versus female leaders. This is the expectation that we have whether we are men or women.

Now if you are thinking that you don’t have this bias, let me challenge you with the next image…

It can be surprising how ‘flipping’ our perspective can reveal unconscious bias that we may never have acknowledged.

As a woman leader myself, when I saw this, I was alarmed to recognise that I have a degree of unconscious bias that supports this and that I have looked to male leaders in a different way and for different things than I have to women leaders. Essentially that means that I have a bias against myself!

Remember – this is an UNCONSCIOUS bias… we don’t choose it and we may not like it when we identify it, it may not reflect the way we see ourselves.

Why does any of this matter?

In a nutshell, when we allow those shortcuts and our unconscious bias to influence our every decision we are missing out on neuro-diversity which means we are risking innovation and creativity, we may be excluding people from our teams and our lives that would enrich our experiences and our service to others. We could be perpetuating stereotypes and limiting the evolution of our diversity and inclusion practices.

Where we have the ‘affiliation bias’ sometimes known as ‘mini me preference’ we not only ostracise the rest of the team who might view that as ‘favouritism’ but could find ourselves surrounded by people just like us who agree with everything we do and say.

Whilst that may sound wonderful, it is hugely limiting, and teams constructed that way seldom succeed long term.

What can we do about it?

It is an unconscious bias, so we don’t necessarily know we have it! Here are some tips to help us to reflect on our decisions and check our bias.

  1. SLOW DOWN your thinking. When you ‘jump to conclusions’ using those short cuts, take a moment to slow your thinking down and use analysis rather than instinct.
  2. FLIP-IT. Change your perspective on the situation. If you are having a conversation with someone and you’re not sure if your judgement is bias free, imagine they are someone else, a different person, gender, age etc. Does that change the way you feel?
  3. Focus on the FACTS not the FACE. Listen to what is being said, shelve your judgement. Colour, shape, size and the way someone chooses to dress should never be the basis for a decision. We have even seen this bias against names, for example, you’re looking at a bunch of CV’s and you have a Michael or a Abegunde. What thoughts can you catch when you look at these two? Chances are if you are from the Western world you will have a bias towards Michael, if you are Nigerian, you will have a preference for Abegunde.
  4. Up your EMPATHY. Try to put yourself in the shoes of others, remember that we all feel things differently and that we are entitled to those feelings, rather than judging the way someone responds to you, look at the situation through their life-lens.

Unconscious bias is a fact of life and was useful when we needed it to make quick judgements and decisions about whether people were friends or enemies. These days it is more likely to hold us back than move us forward and my challenge to you is to check yourself when you are making important decisions, and make sure your unconscious bias is not narrowing your world view.

If you’re interested in learning more or in a virtual session exploring this subject or others with your teams, drop me a line. I also recommend checking out the incredible work being done by which “holds the clear vision of a high performance, competency focused yachting industry, regardless of gender, race or any other factors”


Sara Ballinger