Every single day we make hundreds of decisions – not all of them the right ones. As humans, our decision-making process is heavily influenced by our primary, innate biases which operate in a parallel world to our rational and logical thought processes. Unconscious bias is rife in the workplace where our background, previous experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context, directly impact the decisions we make without us even realizing it.
Unconscious bias in the workplace
Recent research shows that unconscious bias is in play in every aspect of the modern workplace — in recruitment, retention, performance management, promotion, client relations, and the allocation of work assignments.
How unconscious bias affects individuals in the workplace, and strategies and tactics for overcoming this problem is the responsibilities of senior leadership; In fact, raising awareness of unconscious biases is now widely considered a new kind of diversity training.
From a business perspective, unconscious bias is important in terms of globalization and success in the global economy, since businesses that understand the power of diversity will benefit in terms of productivity and profitability.
Consequently, we need to be aware of unconscious bias as it has a substantial and far-reaching impact on work environment and culture, on interactions between employees, and on client relationships. It can be an important hidden factor in whether:
- The best candidate gets a job
- The most suitable employee is given responsibility for an important project
- A performance review is aligned with salary and bonus payments
- Promotions are given based on merit or favoritism
- Clients feel that they have received good service
Unconscious bias is rife in the workplace where our background, previous experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context, directly impact the decisions we make without us even realizing it
7 types of unconscious bias at work
By improving our awareness of these types of bias, we can overcome them, become more self-aware as individuals, and strengthen our ability to make fairer better-informed decisions.
1. Affinity bias
This refers to when we unconsciously prefer people with whom we share similar qualities. It occurs because our brain sees them as familiar and relatable, and we all want to be around people that we can relate to.
If, for example, someone went to the same university or shares similar hobbies, we are more likely to have an affinity for them. However, this can cloud one’s judgment about which individuals are best for the business and may result in fewer diverse employees, which means less creative views and approaches to work.
2. Attribution bias
This generally applies to how we assess other people; i.e. how we perceive our actions and those of others. We usually attribute our own accomplishments to our skill and personality, and our failures to external factors.
However, this perception often reverses when we view other people. When they do something successfully, we are more likely to consider them lucky, and more likely to attribute their errors to poor capabilities or personal qualities.
3. Beauty bias
With this bias, we tend to think that the most attractive individual will be the most successful. We all notice the appearance of others because appearances are important, particularly in a workplace setting, as they reflect on professionalism and self-awareness.
However, we may unconsciously judge others unfairly based on their physical attributes. This may arise from a subconscious, stereotypical view of what an appropriate or successful person should look like.
4. Confirmation bias
This refers to how we search for evidence that backs up our own opinions, rather than looking at the whole picture. This can lead to selective observation, meaning we overlook other information and instead focus on things that fit our viewpoint.
Beauty bias means we think that the most attractive individual will be the most successful
Most people unconsciously slip into confirmation bias because they seek confirmation that their initial assessment of a person is correct — we even do it to reinforce other unconscious biases, so it is important to keep it in check.
5. Gender bias
This is simply a preference for one gender over the other and often stems from deep-seated beliefs about gender roles and stereotypes. This can cause us to unconsciously lean towards an individual based on their gender and the qualities we associate with it.
Gender bias occurs because we favor people that we can relate to, especially those of the same gender. We often connect with them more easily because of shared gender-specific physical and emotional experiences.
6. Halo effect
This occurs when we focus on one particularly impressive feature about a person. Thereafter, we view everything about the person in a positive “halo” light, which makes us think that they are “more” perfect than they really are.
Similar to affinity and confirmation bias, this makes us overlook other information, and it skews our opinion of other aspects of the person, especially negative ones.
Gender bias occurs because we favor people that we can relate to, especially those of the same gender
7. Horns effect
This is the opposite of the halo effect: we focus on one particularly negative feature about an individual, which clouds our view of their other qualities. It is important to remember that one mistake or flaw does not represent the person as a whole.
Strategies for countering unconscious bias in the workplace
Preventing unconscious bias in the workplace is vital, as it can lead to unfair, inaccurate judgments, overlooked talent, or even discrimination. The first step is simple – “make the unconscious, conscious.”
According to Berkshire Associates, the following workplace strategies are a good start:
- Encourage the discussion of biases in the workplace. Self-awareness is the first step, and it is key. We need to own up to having them before we can address them
- Be aware of the impact that these biases may have on decision-making within the organization and discuss how they can potentially impede progress towards a company’s goals
- Survey employees about their experiences with unconscious biases, as well as hidden barriers that may exist within the organization. Tailor training and intervention according to these findings
- Implement policies and practices that ensure that unconscious biases are not impeding efforts towards developing an inclusive and diverse workplace
And remember, biases are not bad — they are simply part of human nature. By acknowledging the various types of unconscious bias that we all possess, we can start to address and mediate them.