Understanding unconscious bias

When working with different members of your team, it’s essential to keep in mind that they come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Some of which will be different from your own. Let’s talk about unconscious bias and how it might impact your life, your work and your relationships with others.

At any given moment, we receive over 11 million bits of information from the world around us. Our brain can consciously process over 40 bits of information! To avoid information overload, our brain uses shortcuts shaped by past experiences, cultural or societal norms, and personal beliefs to determine what info is essential. These shortcuts are also called Unconscious biases. Without unconscious bias, the brain would be flooded. Those shortcuts enable us to make quick and simple decisions.

There are hundreds of them operating without us being aware. If we don’t implement tactics and mechanics to challenge our biases, individually and as a team or community, they can negatively impact the quality of our decisions and relationships.

These biases can also cause us to seek agreements or consistency prematurely. Such as:

  • For leaders, give individuals un-earned advantages in the workplace, for example.
  • Ignore or minimize relevant data when making decisions.
  • Overlook signs when a change of strategy is needed.

As you work with others, be mindful of your own unconscious biases, and the impact they might have on your approach to a problem and decision.

Stereotypes: a generalization of a group of people that do not take into account individual differences.

I used to skateboard in downtown Vancouver. Minimalist at heart, I offered myself a penny board classic blackout. Guess why I stopped? A lot of people are mean to skateboarders! They would think to themselves that I had failed my life and that I had nothing better to do than skateboarding all day. They were unconsciously judging me.

A few years back, I talked with Mike from Austin, Texas. He was running his own company. A candidate told him that she had left her previous employer to focus on her family. Unconsciously, Mike had ruled her out in his mind.

Common biases and observed criteria:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Job
  • Physical
  • Ability
  • Religious
  • Affinity. Giving benefit to those that are “like me” (e.g., same university, race, or gender.). “He reminds me of me when I was just starting. Same field of study and career aspirations. We should hire him!”
  • Proximity. Giving benefit to those that are “near me”. This bias often surfaces in remote situations if you feel like you don’t have visibility to someone’s work. “I know we’re all working remotely, but what hours does he actually work? I rarely see him online”.
  • Confirmation Bias: having an overly positive or negative view of someone that makes you seek only the information that confirms your belief. “I knew she was going to struggle with her project, given her lack of experience. Fred says she’s figuring it out, but all I’ve seen are missteps”.

Interrupting bias

How are personal experiences, beliefs, or cultural and societal norms shaping our perspectives?
Have we sought out new or different perspectives before making this decision?
Did we allow enough time to gather and consider all data versus making quickest or easiest decisions?
Are we taking calculated risks or avoiding loss/conflict?

Unconscious bias in management

It is important to understand that you would never be able to identify all of your biases.

But you can proactively work to make sure your management style is open to people from a variety of backgrounds. Ask yourself:

  • Are you offering the same kind of support for everyone on your team?
  • When things are going well, and your team seems to be in agreement, pause and ask them what are we missing.
  • Whose opinion have we not considered?

Make it a habit of asking those questions and listening to the answers.

Examine the communication styles of your team. Are team meetings inclusive for soft talkers or introverts?
How can you make sure as a manager that your employees participate in their own way? Collect a variety of methods for collecting project inputs, both by email or in person.

Besides, consider inclusivity when planning team events.

How can you make sure you are welcoming all people from all the background?
Ask your team for their input. Challenge yourself to try something new.

Be aware of your unconscious bias when giving feedback.
Give people in similar roles, equal opportunities to learn and improve.

Managers should proactively work to make sure their management style is open to people from a variety of backgrounds.

Mindfulness

Large companies and organizations such as AOL, eBay, and Rebook have integrated Mindfulness and meditation into their workplace. Mindful people are more open and inclusive; the practice lends itself to teamwork.

When Mindfulness is delivered to a team, through role-play and other exercises, they can learn how to notice their reactions. Which are unconscious and step back rather than react.

Over time a person will learn to listen actively and be in the moment when interacting with others in their team.

And they will learn how to address conflicts rather than becoming angry or aggressive.

Also, I’d encourage you to read about Mindful Leadership.

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