Identifying and Mitigating Unconscious Bias

Identifying and Mitigating Unconscious Bias

This post addresses a conversation I had with Tim O’Malley, owner of Fios Consulting in Chicago, who focuses on facilitating conversations related to the impact of diversity, inclusion and engagement on organizations.

Tim and I were chatting about our unconscious biases and how we as humans have unconscious biases that impact the way we go about our daily lives.

Unconscious biases, also known as implicit social cognitions, are the attitudes or stereotypes that influence how we understand, act and decide without consciously analyzing our behaviors. This means that we, as humans, don’t realize we are relying on these biases to react to a situation or make decisions (Understanding Implicit bias, n.d).

Unconscious biases are innate to how we operate. For example, when we meet somebody new we unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) relate qualities or traits about that person back to our own experiences, knowledge, and attitudes to form an image about that person.

Consider another example. When we walk into an open room, such as a public dining area, we may sit next to, or close to, someone because we perceive that we will be more comfortable with them. There is likely something about that person, such as the way they dress or talk, that puts us at ease. This is an unconscious behavior that leads us to favor what we are accustomed to.

So where do our unconscious biases originate from? These implicit social cognitions come from the messages and lessons we received in our early childhood (both formal and informal), our life experiences, and the saturation of media messaging (TV, internet, print, etc.).

Our personal biases can also leach into organizational actions. Companies often state: “The only way to get promoted is on merit” — meaning only those who demonstrate mastery of specific skills get promoted. But, in reality there are a lot of other factors, such as familiarity with the person based on common background and experiences, or previous positive experiences with someone similar. The more open a company is to acknowledging its biases, whether unconscious or conscious, the better the chance that company has of addressing those biases.

Is being biased good or bad?

The answer is neither. It is just part of being human.

What becomes good or bad is not our biases, but the behaviors we exhibit because of those biases. Thus the challenge for us is to be more conscious about our biases and work to exhibit behaviors consistent with how we think, not how we unconsciously react.

This is difficult because the term ‘bias’ is often laden with negative connotations.You may have heard someone say, “I’m not biased” or “I don’t have a biased bone in my body” and in organizations you see policies such as “this is judgement free zone” or “no judgement.” But the reality is that we may be asking people to be robots. Instead, it is probably better to help people acknowledge their biases and address the behaviors rather than ask them to simply not be biased.

So, how do we become more conscious of our biases?

Acknowledge that we have biases.

They can be powerful memories and are a part of who we are. For example, Tim and I both attended Catholic schools and, based on our experiences, we may have developed mental assumptions about religions. Left unconscious, these assumptions can lead me to favor, or be more comfortable with, those who were raised Catholic.

Pay attention to the powerful memories you have.

Experiences where you felt safe or unsafe strongly shape how we see the world today. Painful memories are often particularly powerful. If a dog bit you when you were young, chances are you may be scared of all dogs especially if you had limited exposure to other dogs.

Judge people on their behavior, not on their stereotype.

This is challenging because we often associate a behavior with a stereotype. Be sure to ask yourself if you’re attaching more or less meaning to someone’s behavior due to an aspect of their identity. I am Hispanic; yet, I want to be evaluated based on my merits and accomplishments.

Surround yourself with people who are different.

Different refers not only to skin color or physical attributes, it refers to different idiosyncrasies, cultural experiences, and political views. A greater variety of actual experiences will provide data to challenge our biases. It allows us to experience who they are as an individual, rather than what our unconscious bias tell us who they are.

Consider your bias before you judge someone. If you don’t, you may miss an opportunity to meet a person who has a great sense of humor, what his or her aspirations are, or if you could have learned something new.

Don’t allow your unconscious biases to limit who you are.

Interested in learning more about your unconscious biases? Take this well-known test from Project Implicit.


Why Indigo?

Indigo is a color that is formed by mixing other colors. I see business and its issues in the same way; businesses are formed by issues that can be seen from several perspectives and thus, it is important to recognize those components as more than just black and white.

Indigo Ink is a collection of articles on Marketing, Sales, Entrepreneurship and Exchanging Ideas from Dr. Laura Munoz.

Munoz is an Associate Professor of Marketing with the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. She received her Ph.D. in Marketing and International Business from the University of Texas – Pan American (now the University of Texas of the Rio Grande). Her main research interests are in professional selling and on those topics that emerge from the intersection between marketing and entrepreneurship. Her research has been published in leading journals such as the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Marketing Management Journal, Marketing Education Review, and the Journal of Business & Entrepreneurship.

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