What is the meaning of Unconscious Bias?
I thought I would begin by looking at Wikipedia as I wanted see how it explains “unconscious bias”. “Unconscious bias or implicit bias. The underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously attribute to another person or group of people that affect how they understand and engage with them.”
They are therefore learned assumptions or attitudes that are in our sub-consciousness and that can, impact the way we think and / or act. Cognitive bias is another name for unconscious and implicit bias, and as a concept, it was first introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. It may not be possible to completely eliminate the brain's predisposition to taking shortcuts but understanding that biases exist can be useful when making decisions. If, for example, you act on your gut instincts or assumptions, there’s a chance you’re opening yourself up to unconscious bias. This can mean people affected by your actions might be unfairly discriminated against or favoured without you even realizing. Even if you don’t believe in stereotypes, a negative connotation may be in the form of unconscious gender or racial bias, or a range of other types of bias. For example, age discrimination during an interview may occur as a manager / interviewee may expect the applicant to work slower, have a low understanding of technology and take more time off with sickness. Therefore, the applicant may be marked down although the interviewer may not realise he / her are discriminating against the person as it is an unconscious bias.
What sort of biases are there?
There are a number of other different biases such as:
• Conformity bias • Weight bias • Affinity bias • Confirmation bias • Beauty bias • Gender bias • Attribution bias • Name bias • Height bias
To give a clearer example of this, one common bias is that women are weak although we know in one way or another, many are extremely strong and probably the emotionally stronger sex. Another common bias is that obese people are lazy although their weight may be due to any of a range of factors, including illness / disease. Everyone is prone to cognitive bias and it is often used in conspiracy theories. It is frequently used when people only pay attention to news stories that confirm their own opinions. I remember this was seen clearly during the Covid pandemic when snippets of information were taken out of context and this created its own story. It can be a very powerful way of creating news stories and it can blame information / triggers / people that have nothing to do with the original story.
Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
At work, it takes a conscious effort to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace. Being aware of what these could be is the best method to tackle them:
1. Accept that we all have unconscious biases – a bias is part of being human which has to be acknowledged.
2. Make considered decisions – unintentional bias is more likely when you follow your gut
3. Monitor your behaviour – question your first impressions and extreme reactions to people
4. Pay attention to bias related characteristics – such as age, disability, sex, maternity, etc.
5. Widen your social circle – spend time with people from different cultural and academic backgrounds to broaden your knowledge and perspectives
6. Set ground rules for behaviour – ensuring equality and fairness is key
7. Avoid relying on gut instinct – intuition can be very important but ensure you use it with a balanced approach
8. Speak out if you notice bias – don’t let a stronger colleague talk over someone.
Point out you wanted to hear what (s)he was going to say It is clear that is in an individual’s choice on how to avoid an unconscious bias and monitor one’s own behaviour. So, the unconscious bias theory is therefore, different to conscious, or explicit biases, which are intentionally discriminative.
What is the Implicit Association Test (IAT)?
To raise awareness of unconscious bias, there are various tests you can take online such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). To look at this test, I clicked on the link above and chose to take the physical disability IAT test.
It begins by explaining: “You have selected the Physical Disability Task. In this study you will complete an Implicit Association Test (IAT) in which you will be asked to sort pictures and words into groups as fast as you can. In addition to the IAT, there are some questions about your beliefs, attitudes, and opinions, and some standard demographic questions. This study should take about 10 minutes to complete. At the end, you will receive your IAT result along with information about what it means.” I proceeded as instructed and I found some of the questioning to be very uncomfortable. For example, by how much do you prefer physically able people to physically disabled people. It is important to confront biases and as my current daily life doesn’t involve being with physically disabled people, I think this highlights how important diversity is and that widening your social circle emphasises inclusivity and an unconditional positive regard. It further asked a few questions as to whether a disability had had a negative impact on emotions, family, finances, etc. It made me question to myself the different types of disability and that I hadn’t thought about family members who are classed as disabled. Is this because I simply see them as a family member and I would like to think I am not biased. The IAT measures associations between concepts (e.g., Physically Abled People and Physically Disabled People) and evaluations (e.g., Good, Bad). People are quicker to respond when items that are more closely related in their mind share the same button. For example, an implicit preference for Physically Abled People relative to Physically Disabled People means that you are faster to sort words when 'Physically Abled People' and 'Good' share a button relative to when 'Physically Disabled People' and 'Good' share a button.
As a coach, we are constantly meeting and starting new relationships with coachees. We know how important those first impressions are to building a warm, trusting rapport crucial to the success of the coaching engagement. However, those first moments of meeting a new person are particularly prone to influence from our unconscious biases. In coaching, we quickly develop personal and sensitive conversations and it is important for, especially the coach, to be aware of any unconscious biases. My focus will always be on being non-judgmental and to have an unconditional positive regard to reinforce inclusion. As mentioned, it is important to be aware of unconscious bias at an interview but awareness should continue after recruitment. If someone doesn’t fit into an organisation, they may continue to be treated differently by colleagues and feel undervalued and excluded. In more extreme cases, this can lead to bullying and discrimination with people feeling excluded and unsupported which will frequently lead to reduced productivity and will impair diversity and staff retention. It is therefore important to promote an unconditional positive regard through being non-judgmental and non-directiveness.
Unconditional Positive Regard Unconditional positive regard is a concept initially developed by Stanley Standal in 1954 and was later expanded and popularised by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers in 1956. It is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does, especially in the context of client-centred therapy. There are four key components of unconditional positive regard according to Carl Rogers and these include: • empathy • unconditional positive regard • congruence and • attitude verses technique. It is a professional and conscious decision at times, to wholly accept and value a coachee for who they are and treat them without judgement, criticism or evaluation. For example, I have worked with a coachee who had a dream! It is fabulous to have a dream but the dream didn’t have a clear strategy so the business plan she was putting together had a lot of holes in it.
I would question the approach and it took time for the coachee to realise that through stepping back and looking objectively, they would be able to highlight any discrepancies and break the process down to achieve a more attainable plan. I felt frustrated that the individual wanted to reinvent the wheel in her approach although I didn’t want to directly tell the person that I didn’t think it was the best approach. Through questioning, she realised this was linked to cultural beliefs and the coachee came to the same conclusion but it took a few weeks to get there. I also remember consciously judging someone who looked very young and was a very informal dresser and every time I have worked with them, I remember being really impressed with how professional and knowledgeable they were. A lesson to remain non-judgmental and focus on a person’s ability within the workplace as opposed to what a person looks like.
In conclusion, it is essential for everyone to be conscious of their unconscious biases and to increase diversity and inclusion into their practices and daily life. Research and experience show that diversity in teams leads to both increased innovation and better decision-making. It’s not just because, for example, the member of a ‘minority’ contributes something unique, but that everyone does. If there is an environment where everyone feels they can be their authentic self, it is easier for an individual to express their opinions as everyone will be doing so. Therefore, diversity is key to educating our selves, giving us a wider perspective and making a conscious decision to reduce our biases.
How can I help you / your business?
As a qualified coach, I will always have a professional non-judgmental attitude and through a range of skills, I will be able to assess the best approach for your needs. Are you interested in reducing staff turnover and increasing productivity?
The most viable approach is to work on a 1:1 basis within a team and write a report to highlight the findings for: Raising Awareness of Unconscious Bias.
Please contact me here so that I can discuss this with you further.