Revealing Subtle Influences in the Workplace: Understanding Unconscious Biases
Published on December 8th, 2023
Unconscious bias refers to the prejudices that we humans hold without consciously being aware of them.
These biases can affect our perceptions, attitudes, and behavior towards others. In the workplace, unconscious biases can have a major impact on decision-making, employee morale, and overall productivity. This is why understanding and handling unconscious biases is crucial for creating an inclusive and equitable work environment.
In the late 1990s, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji and her former PhD advisor, Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington, created a test to measure biases that may be hidden from our conscious minds. It was called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. Since then, millions of people have taken the test, and not all of them liked the conclusions.
Now, what Mahzarin Banaji says is that we should not think of our minds as being solitary: "The individual mind sits in society. And the connection between mind and society is an extremely important one that should not be forgotten."
This is why finger-pointing at an individual won't change things much. We need to fix the mind of the whole village. And because we are talking about unconscious biases at work, this means that measures need to be taken at the company culture level.
How the Unconscious Bias Works
Unconscious bias is an innate mechanism that takes place in the mind, triggered by our previous encounters, cultural factors, and societal preconceptions.
It's crucial to understand that these biases are not deliberately or consciously shaped. Instead, they are deeply rooted and have the potential to affect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors unknown to us.
Now, you should know that our brain loves patterns and taking shortcuts. And this can be both a good thing, and a bad thing. Because our brain needs a lot of energy to function, it will take any chance it gets to save that energy.
For example, when you're in the forest and see a snake, you just jump to avoid it, and not sit and analyze the potential outcomes of the encounter.
When at work, we might choose to get close to people that we might share some hobbies with. Our brain will look more favorable at such people, because they seem more familiar. It's a shortcut.
The unconscious bias is rooted in the brain's innate tendency to categorize information to make sense of the world.
But this has some downsides. Research has shown that unconscious bias can have a profound impact on our perceptions and judgments of others. It can affect how we:
⦁ Evaluate job candidates,
⦁ Make hiring decisions,
⦁ Do performance reviews,
⦁ Interact with colleagues.
I'll dig deeper into the topic later.
8 Unconscious Biases in the Workplace You Should Be "Conscious" about
Upon encountering new information, our brain instantly compares it to existing knowledge and past experiences. This is when the functions of labeling and categorizing become relevant. This rapid comparison occurs within moments and often depends on shortcuts and heuristics to facilitate swift assessments.
Now, let's see how these biases manifest themselves.
The Affinity Bias: we prefer what’s like us over what’s different
This bias occurs when we unconsciously favor individuals who are similar to us in terms of background, interests, or values. We tend to put such people in a favorable light. It is a natural tendency to feel more comfortable and connected with people who share our experiences and perspectives.
Stereotyping: generalizing attributes
This bias involves making assumptions or generalizations about a group of people based on their characteristics or attributes.
For example, there's the gender stereotype that refers to preconceived notions about women's abilities and roles, creating biases that hinder their career growth. This is what led to having less women in leadership roles.
The Halo/Horns Effect: judging based on a single trait
The halo effect is a form of stereotyping. It refers to forming an overall positive or negative impression of someone based on a single characteristic or trait. For example, if we perceive someone to be physically attractive, we may subconsciously assume that they are also intelligent or competent. On the other hand, if we perceive someone to be unattractive, we may unconsciously associate them with negative qualities.
Confirmation Bias: choosing information that confirms our beliefs
This bias occurs when we actively seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs or biases, while ignoring or dismissing information that contradicts them. This can create an echo chamber effect, where our biases are reinforced, and we become less open to alternative perspectives.
For example, team members will adhere to the dominant standpoint without contemplating varied viewpoints, thereby constraining innovation and critical thinking.
Also, let's assume a report is needed for some quarterly marketing performance. Employees might end up focusing on data that supports a predetermined conclusion and ignoring contrary evidence...
Here's another example. When dealing with the sales strategy for the upcoming months, employees might seek out information that aligns with one's perspective while ignoring conflicting data.
These are all some comfortable shortcuts that will negatively affect the decision-making processes.
Expedience Bias: we want to act fast
Like I mentioned before, our brain loves mental shortcuts. This is why we often rush to judgements without considering all the facts.
Guilty as charged: been there, done that.
Now, how can this be fixed? The solution involves creating a systematic approach that simplifies the process of getting more information.
Proximity Bias: "out of sight, out of mind"
This type of bias reflects our instinct to prioritize what’s near to us, both in space and time. This is why often employees that work from home feel they're missing something out, because they are not in the office. They feel their team leaders will prefer their colleagues that are physically present in the office. They feel they might lose some growth and career advancement opportunities.
And....they might sometimes be right. Some managers might feel that remote employees are less committed than the ones coming to the office. And there's data to support this. A survey ran back in 2021 showed that 67% of supervisors of remote workers admit to considering remote workers more easily replaceable than onsite workers at their company.
Now, these first 6 biases have some similar outcomes that I will describe in the next chapter of the article. I will also come up with some solutions to mitigate them. So, stay tuned.
Planning Fallacy and Optimism Bias: our brain is biased towards positivity
We are all optimistic about planning and deadlines. Why so?
Well, it seems we all believe: "Nah, it's not going to happen to me."
We all tend to believe that we are less likely to experience negative events.
This is why we might underestimate budgets, deadlines, and so much more.
And this is costing companies time and money.
How to overcome this bias:
⦁ Segment projects into tasks and subtasks.
⦁ Classify tasks according to their urgency.
⦁ Don't ditch new information but incorporate it in your decision-making process. The idea is to adjust to the new amount of information received.
⦁ Schedule buffer time and "buffer" budget.
⦁ Loss Aversion: the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining
Most of us suffer from loss aversion. This means that we do not like risks. This is why we might avoid making risky decisions at work and choose the safe option. Employees might be reluctant to take on new projects or responsibilities if they perceive a risk of failure or potential negative outcomes. This can lead to missed growth opportunities for both the employee and the company.
Employees might continue investing time and resources into projects that are failing, hoping to avoid the sense of loss associated with abandoning their efforts.
How to overcome this bias:
⦁ Encouraging objective evaluation of potential gains and losses, rather than emotional reactions, can lead to more rational decision-making,
⦁ Build a culture where employees are not afraid of taking risks, and where failure is considered an opportunity for learning.
How Are Unconscious Biases Affecting the Workplace?
Let me give you 2 scenarios.
A manager may unconsciously favor extroverted employees over introverted ones when selecting individuals for leadership positions.
The result: this bias towards extroversion may overlook the valuable skills and perspectives that introverted individuals can bring to the table.
A female employee consistently receives less recognition for her work compared to her male colleagues.
The result: over time, she may start to question her abilities and feel demotivated to perform at her best. This can have a ripple effect on the entire team, as morale and motivation decline.
These two scenarios are real and happen inside many companies. And these are just a few of the examples out there.
Now, let's take a look at the effects of the first 6 unconscious biases I mentioned earlier:
- Unfair judgments and discriminatory behavior, perpetuating inequality and bias.
Favoritism and exclusion of those who are different from us.
- Assuming certain roles are better suited for certain genders or ethnicities. We can form assumptions about the abilities and skills of individuals based on their gender, ethnicity, or other characteristics. This can result in limited opportunities for professional growth.
- When certain team members see themselves excluded, a sense of division and resentment will show up inside the team.
- Lower productivity and morale inside the team.
- HR people and team leaders might end up hiring people that have similar values to them. This is clearly affecting the diversity at work, but it also can put personal feelings higher than the actual competences of the candidates.
- Leaders and managers might unknowingly favor employees who share their opinions, thus limiting diverse perspectives.
- Employees that have a different opinion than the majority or the leader might end up being excluded, less valued, and this will lead to lower morale and reduced productivity.
- When employees feel that their abilities or contributions are undervalued due to unconscious biases, it can lead to decreased motivation and job satisfaction.
- Subtle microaggressions can show up inside the team. They can create a hostile work environment, erode trust among team members.
- The promotion of individuals who fit in with traditional norms or stereotypes, rather than those who are truly qualified for the position.
- Unfair performance evaluations, where certain individuals are consistently rated lower or higher based on factors unrelated to their actual performance.
- Assigning blame or praise based on personal feelings rather than objective assessment: Unconscious bias can influence our judgment and evaluation of others, leading to unfair treatment. We may unconsciously attribute success or failure to personal characteristics rather than objective factors, such as skills or circumstances.
- Overlooking or undervaluing the contributions of certain individuals: unconscious bias can cause us to overlook or undervalue the achievements and capabilities of individuals who do not fit our preconceived notions or stereotypes. This can result in missed opportunities for collaboration and growth.
How to Overcome the Unconscious Bias at Work
Recognizing and acknowledging our own unconscious biases is an essential step towards minimizing their effects in the workplace. Unconscious biases are deeply ingrained attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions without us even realizing it.
It's crucial for organizations to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace, aiming to create an environment where every employee feels appreciated and supported. This goal can be carried out by implementing diversity and inclusion training initiatives, raising awareness about unconscious bias, and adopting policies and practices that foster equality.
As mentioned earlier, here are some ways to mitigate the impact of the first 6 unconscious biases listed above. So, in order to improve decision making and craft a fair workplace experience, organizations can:
- Implement structured and unbiased evaluation processes,
- Establish diverse selection committees,
- Run bias training programs to help raise awareness and provide employees with the knowledge and tools to recognize and mitigate unconscious biases. These programs can include workshops, online modules, and interactive discussions to foster a culture of inclusivity and understanding.
- Actively finding common ground with people who appear different,
- Encourage employees to engage in self-assessment and reflection to become more aware of their own unconscious biases. This process involves examining our own beliefs, values, and past experiences to find potential biases and challenge them. Self-assessment requires honesty and introspection. It involves questioning our assumptions, beliefs, and reactions to different situations. By reflecting on our thoughts and actions, we can uncover unconscious biases that may be influencing our behavior and decision-making,
- Promote a culture of feedback, where employees can provide valuable insights into our blind spots and help us gain a better understanding of how our biases may affect others. Actively listening to diverse perspectives and being open to constructive criticism can foster personal growth and create a more inclusive work environment,
- Actively promote diversity by implementing inclusive hiring practices and providing equal opportunities for growth and advancement. Now, it is important not to fall into another trap: positive discrimination (a form of discrimination that favors someone by treating them differently in a positive way). Always try to be fair.
- Establish effective procedures to handle bias complaints and ensure that they are thoroughly investigated. Taking proper action in response to bias incidents shows the organization's commitment to creating a fair and inclusive work environment.
Now, I mentioned biases when hiring. I remember that while reading "Noise", Daniel Kahneman had some good ideas to mitigate the risk of making poor hiring decisions. For example, instead of relying too heavily on gut feeling and instinct, recruiters should use structured interviews instead of free-form ones. Also, the recruiting committee should evaluate the interviewees independently, so that they cannot influence one another.
So, if you’re interested in biases, then the topic of “noise” can be on your list as well.
But, what is noise? It refers to variability occurring when making decisions. For instance, in a company, an employee receives 5 different evaluations from colleagues and the team leader. While biases tend to have the same direction, noise can go all directions.
It is important to note that identifying unconscious biases is an ongoing process. This demands consistent introspection, education, and reevaluation. Through proactive efforts to acknowledge and confront these biases, we can play a role in cultivating a workplace that prioritizes fairness and inclusivity, ensuring everyone is esteemed and supported.
In conclusion, understanding unconscious biases and their impact in the workplace is essential for creating a more inclusive and equitable environment. By recognizing and addressing these biases, organizations can foster diversity, improve decision-making processes, enhance employee morale, and ultimately achieve greater success.
Furthermore, it's crucial to keep in mind that addressing biases requires collective effort. Overcoming bias needs a united group using a shared language to support one another in making more informed choices.
Guest blog by Alina from Tidaro
Alina is a digital marketer and photographer. When she’s not strategizing for Tidaro she’s listening to podcasts on history and psychology and making travel plans.
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