It’s outside your control, automatic, and impacts everything you do

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Over the last two days I did a refresh of an accreditation for an instrument that we have been using for the past 17 years. As the program progressed I thought more deeply about unconscious bias from three perspectives: my own biases, how easy it is for people at any level of an organisation to exhibit unconscious bias and, in particular, how often managers fail to consider the impact of their unconscious bias.

I also have a view that unconscious bias is mentioned often in a range of situations but rarely commands the in-depth discussion it deserves because of the impact it has on our behaviour and on decisions we make every day. As David Rock states in simple terms “if you have a brain, you’re biased.”

Before we go any further let’s consider a definition of unconscious bias. Sylvana Storey[1] offers this definition “it (unconscious bias) refers to a bias that happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.” We could conclude that unconscious bias may be a positive as it aids us in being able to process what’s going on around us and make decisions. However as Michael Brainard [2] points out, we don’t necessarily thoroughly process everything we see which according to him means “we don’t see our world as it really is, we see our world the way our bias allows us to see it.”

With unconscious bias ever present it means our behaviour, beliefs, assumptions and decisions are all impacted. This means decisions managers make on strategic direction, where to invest resources, who to recruit, who to promote, approaches to diversity, and a range of other issues, are likely to be flawed in some way unless they are aware of and understand their unconscious biases.

David Rock et al[3] offer ways to deepen our understanding of bias as they have simplified approximately 150 biases into five categories which they have encapsulated in their SEEDS model™

  • Similarity: People who are like me are better than others. A typical response we might think or say “They bring great insights to the role as they did their Master’s Degree at the same University I went to.”
  • Expedience: It feels right to me, it must be true. “They may need more work on their technical knowledge but they will be a great people manager and that’s what we want right now.”
  • Experience: My perceptions are the most accurate. “Sure they ask the tough questions but they’re fair.”
  • Distance: Closer is better than distant. “Sure the price is right but what good is that if they can’t deliver until February.”
  • Safety: Bad is stronger than good. “We have put a lot of resources into this project, now is not the time to walk away.”

I believe Michael Brainard provides an eloquent summary about the importance of understanding our biases and the influence they have on us particularly in our role as managers “Unconscious bias is like gravity: It is powerful and unseen. As leaders, we must practice discipline at the individual and collective levels. We must be intentional about the way we process information, incorporate disciplined decision-making techniques that drive innovation and inclusiveness, and challenge our collective agreements about issues such as the gender-based pay gap and promotion.”

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