We are all biased - but how can you manage it?

Written by
Stephen Frost

14 Sep 2017

14 Sep 2017 • by Stephen Frost

If you google “three black teenagers” you will get some criminal looking mug shots.  If you google “three white teenagers” you will get some smiley happy young people playing sport.  This sums up what we have known for some time now – we are all deeply biased.

Google acts as a window in to our soul – a mirror to our unconscious.  One of the reasons bias runs rampant is because we are not even aware we are biased in the first place.  We assume our view is ‘normal’, our decisions are rational and our view of the world is the view of the world.

Understand that bias exists and we are all subject to it.

We can think of ourselves as unconsciously incompetent. For example, we might publicly state that we don’t see colour. However, reflecting on our behaviour, it becomes clear we do. This is cognitive dissonance (the difference between our stated intention and actual behaviour).  

Unconscious bias needn’t only be negative – if we are about to have a car crash, we unconsciously physically react by stepping on the break pad before we consciously react verbally. It’s about the difference between our conscious brain, where we reason (what Daniel Kahneman calls system 2 thinking), and the unconscious brain, where we react (system 1 thinking). Problems occur in the workplace when we are over reliant on system 1 thinking, especially when dealing with people.

Become personally aware of your own biases

This is about becoming consciously incompetent!

Only through becoming aware can we understand how those biases play out in reality. Take an implicit association test (IAT) at www.implicit.harvard.edu to measure your implicit associations of people and stereotypes and benchmark yourself against the rest of the population.  

Determine your ‘in-group’ by writing down your closest friends, colleagues, partner and neighbours. Then consider who is not in this group – that’s your ‘out-group’. What are you doing to reach out to them?  

Finally, consider the simplicity of eliciting feedback from your colleagues, senior and junior, friend and foe.  

Work out how you can minimize your negative biases

This is about becoming more consciously competent. Take an extra few seconds to breathe, count to ten, and shift your mind from system 1 to system 2 thinking.

Move from unconscious knee jerk reactions to more conscious reasoning. Get to know your 'out-group'. Grab coffee, have lunch, join an employee network, change your hot desk location. Try to get to know others and change your frame of reference.  

Finally, walk in someone else’s shoes – rotate the chair in meetings or simply listen to more/different perspectives.

Unconscious bias training is now standard practice in many organisations, but it’s only as useful as what you do with it. The real value is in how you apply it – to mitigate the negatives, and make better decisions for you and your organisation.