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Tips to Guard against Unconscious Bias

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

BIAS, the dictionary meaning of which is, a particular feeling, tendency, trend, inclination, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived. It also means having unreasonably hostile feelings or opinions about a person, a community, or prejudice towards or against something or someone, many times irrational.

While some biases are positive and helpful - like staying away from foods that are considered unhealthy or avoiding someone who might have caused harm in the past, most often biases are often based on what we have heard from someone or which might have come down from generations, rather than actual knowledge of the individual or circumstances. Whether bias is positive or negative, such preconceived notions, most often than not, could result in rash decisions or biased practices which are very unhealthy. Bias happens in every area of life, be it personal or professional, although one of the most prominent areas of life where bias is often seen taking place is the workplace.

It is important to know how biases affect us and our decision-making processes. It affects:

Our Observation – how we see people and form opinions

Our Outlook – how we create a mindset towards certain people

Our Behavior – how receptive/friendly we are towards certain people

Our Empathy – the kind of people/person we empathize with

Our Listening Skills – whether we actively listen or ignore what certain people say

Our Sympathy – how much or how little we comfort certain people in certain situations

There are different types of biases, and we often see this taking place many times in different contexts.

Conscious bias (also known as explicit bias) – a pre-judgment that we do knowingly and with intent. Conscious bias is intentional and responsive. Conscious bias can be addressed and stopped to a significant level, especially at the workplace, with the help of work policies and work culture, especially in the areas of addressing prejudices based on race, age, gender, gender identity, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation and many other characteristics.

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) – actions we take or reactions we give which may have been because of something we might have heard from someone or social stereotypes about certain communities, race, religion, group, stereotypes although not limited to only these areas. One of the main characteristics of unconscious bias is its ability to not come to the surface in its true form. It shows up mostly in the form of racial bias, discrimination, categorization, attitudes and beliefs. The backlash of unconscious bias is far more often seen when certain scenarios activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs and release an impact that can prove to be critically negative. If these biases aren’t recognized and avoided, they could lead to decisions that are bad for both individuals and the company.

Given below are the most common examples of Unconscious Bias and some tips to guard against them and reduce their impact.

Gender Bias Male, female biases - Gender bias has been prevalent in office culture for a long time. The bias is more often directed at the female gender and is seen in almost all professions. Certain traits such as assertiveness, confidence, being bold which are seen as positive traits in the male of the species are often considered a negative trait in females. Doesn’t matter if the female colleague is more suitable or educated the preference most often than not, goes to the male colleague. This disparity is often seen during reviews and promotions. These biases often cause female employees to feel less appreciated Generation/Age Bias Age is another factor that brings in a lot of bias-based decisions. When an important project needs to get done, most often managers don’t like to assign the task to the younger team members but will go for a more senior colleague – the unconscious bias being that a younger person would not be able to handle a team or the responsibility. In the same way, if a project requires you to be technologically savvy, a younger team member is chosen, assuming that older people cannot or may not be technologically savvy which is wrong and unfair and could lead to poor decision-making or delegation. The Horn/Halo Effect This happens when an individual/group/race achieves something significant and a halo is created. For example, a team member gives an effective presentation which is praised by all the people who attended it. A halo is created around this person and he/she is approached to give future presentations when there are other equally talented people in the team. The reverse of this occurrence is called the horn effect. Name & Similarity Bias The similarity bias essentially states that we like working with people similar to us, maybe from the same campus, previous workplaces or maybe belonging to a similar race or religion. Organizations too should not stick to bringing in employees from any one campus, B-school, or from one particular organization since this bias could lead to organizations having no diversity in their team, in ideas and perspectives, which could lead to less-than-ideal solutions to problems.

Few Tips to guard against Unconscious Biases

Whether we like it or not, biases are always going to be there. What one can do is become aware and try as much to reduce the number of occurrences where this disparity could take root and reduce their impact. Some tips to enable such a culture would be as follows:

  • Help your team members recognize events leading to unconscious bias. This can be done by creating this awareness with relevant training, case studies, meetings, group discussions.

  • Explain the effect such biases can have on the individual and the business

  • Explain how it can affect the correct decision-making process

  • Explain the need to be fair and consistent keeping the bigger victory in mind. This will help the right people to get the right job/project

  • Explain the need to be fair and consistent, keeping integrity, honesty, and respect for the individual as core values

  • Remove bias from your hiring approach

  • If there is a situation of having members from the same campus/group/religion/ilk for a particular project, bring in an outside unbiased viewpoint to enable selecting the right person for the job. In the first place ensure there is diversity in the team

  • Accountability - Hold employees accountable for their actions, monitor activities, and intervene if the need arises

  • Open a whistleblower forum where employees can discreetly speak up if they observe a bias

By recognizing biases and actively working towards reducing their impact, one can ensure these biases don’t affect our behaviors, actions, and decision making prowess. It is important to start. Make the unconscious bias, conscious. Once we are conscious of it, we start working on removing it from our system so that it doesn’t slowly disrupt the workplace. Start becoming mindful and stop the need to survive on unconscious assumptions that can lead only to conflicts which would seriously affect workplace productivity, if not addressed appropriately.

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