Aside from when we’re talking about our kids, or our favourite sport, how many of us would want to admit we’re biased? A lot of people work really hard to fight against conscious bias. They make a conscious effort not to make assumptions about a person because of characteristics such as gender and gender identity, religion, cultural background, or age. Because of this, many of those people would consider that they are not biased. But what about unconscious bias?
Unconscious biases are thought patterns that we develop over time, reinforced by our environment and our experiences. According to Australian National University, this bias “is often interpreted as the first impression and intuitions we have when interacting with other people. Unconscious bias is deeply ingrained into our thinking and emotions and is outside of our control.”
Our brains like patterns and predictability. They look for shortcuts to help us process all the information we are exposed to every day. These can be helpful. But these deeply ingrained thought patterns are also likely causing us to make snap judgements about people around us that we would not consciously admit…even to ourselves.
Have you ever caught yourself with biased thoughts?
Again, if you think your kids are genuinely the cutest human beings ever put on this earth you’ve probably felt quite comfortable with that level of bias in your life. But have you ever realized you were reacting to someone or expecting something of someone based on assumptions or thought patterns that weren’t fair?
This is exactly what happened to Kristen Pressner, and she was brave enough to share her uncomfortable learnings in a Ted Talk titled “Are you Biased?” As someone who consciously advocated strongly for female leaders, and a female leader herself, she would have disputed any suggestion of gender bias. Until she caught herself.
In the same week, she had two requests for pay reviews from members of her team – one a male and one a female. Her initial, instinctive reaction to the request from the male was different to the request from the female. She was so thankful to have caught herself, but horrified to admit the unconscious bias at play.
In her Ted Talk, she discusses her research on our expectations of men and women. We expect men to be driven, assertive and a provider. We expect women to be helpful, sensitive, and supportive. In other words, “we see men as taking charge and women as taking care”. Her startling realisation was that she was reacting to an unconscious bias that men are providers. Even though in her personal life she was the sole provider for her family. She was biased against female leaders…and herself.
It would be difficult for anyone to admit they had an unconscious bias that was not true to who they want to be. Or to the person they see themselves as. But in openly discussing this experience and learning, Kirsten has opened a door, without judgment, for all of us to reflect on unconscious biases we all carry. Whether we like to admit to them or not.
How can we tell if we’re acting from bias?
Kristen Pressner was able to notice the impact of her bias in real time because she had the same request at the same time from two different team members. But as she says, “it’s a big stretch to imagine that we’ll always have the opportunity to cross check our reactions with two different people in real life”.
We love her suggestion of “Flip it to test it”. This means that in any situation you can flip the person you’re dealing with for someone else to test yourself. For example, if you’re dealing with a female, you can flip it to consider whether you would react the same way to a male in this scenario. In the same way you can flip age, race, religion, sexual orientation etc. to check whether the new scenario feels weird.
As she says, if the new scenario feels weird or funny, you may want to check yourself as biases are very likely playing into your thinking.
Flip it to test it. By doing this, you might be surprised at how often you would choose to behave differently. It is a brilliant way of taking away some of the power from those unconscious biases.
How can we reduce the impact of unconscious bias at work?
As we have seen, unconscious biases are ingrained in our thinking and emotions. Much of the time they influence us without us even being aware.
Stepping back and taking the “flip it to test it” trick is a fabulous way to start. But what are some other ways individuals and organisations are trying to systematically remove the impact that unconscious bias has at work?
The first step to reducing the impact of any unconscious bias is to be aware that unconscious bias exists for all of us. This is why so many passionate people are writing and talking about it (such as the TED Talk we are referencing here). Many organisations also provide training on unconscious bias. Knowledge is power here. Once people are aware, they are able to take accountability for checking themselves and those around them.
The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is an online tool which can help you become aware of your own biases. This tool has been promoted by a number of organisations and individuals as part of that first step towards self-awareness.
It’s a good idea to limit the impact of unconscious bias as possible in any process that could benefit some people more than others. This includes processes such as recruitment, promotion or succession planning, performance reviews and remuneration or reward processes. To limit the impact of ‘gut feel’, it is important to agree to objective criteria for success before any review or selection process occurs. It is also important to make sure that any assessment is based on evidence, facts and tangible examples.
Some organisations have diversity and inclusion committees, or initiatives to support groups who are more likely to have been impacted by unconscious bias in the past. Some larger organisations who identify systemic cultural biases have even gone as far as having quotas or targets for representation of traditionally marginalised groups.
But it doesn’t always have to be big business, or company policy, driving initiatives that can stem the impact of unconscious bias.
Some things are as simple as how you choose to run your meetings. You may choose to allocate someone as the ‘dissenting thinker’ in each meeting. This is a person whose job is to challenge any consensus (whether they agree or not). Having them give the alternative viewpoint for discussion before any final decision is made can open up discussion for other voices and perspectives to be recognised and respected. To make sure all team members have an opportunity to contribute, some teams may rotate the role of meeting chair, or ask everyone to write down one idea to share in brainstorming sessions.
Also, given the impact of our experiences on these unconscious thought patterns, you may wish to actively seek connection with groups of people you may not have had the opportunity to interact with. Conversations with a diverse group of people can help you to explore and challenge your biases. Interacting predominantly with those with similar characteristics and experiences to you can reinforce biases.
If it makes you uncomfortable to think about having unconscious bias, then you are not alone. But you’re also then clearly someone who consciously works to limit the impact of bias on your thoughts and actions. This makes you exactly the person who could benefit from some of these ideas, starting with the “flip it to test it” trick. Because, as asked by Kristen Pressner “what if you’re missing an opportunity to see the world differently?”
If you’re interested in learning more, we recommend you start with Kristen Pressner’s Ted Talk:
Want to watch more educational content that we believe is worth checking out? Find them all here.