There’s a way to tackle unconscious bias without shame and blame

Everyone has biases that can lead to discrimination. Blaming and shaming gets us nowhere, and training isn’t enough. But you can make changes that work.

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Recently, I went back to watch some TV series I remembered fondly from my childhood in the 1980s. I started with high-tech car and human crime-fighting buddy show Knight Rider and went on to ‘Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’ comedy M*A*S*H.

I pulled the plug on the project after one episode of each. I’d imagined ‘slightly off’ social values and rudimentary special effects, but I had to stop because the barrage of sexist and racist stereotypes was simply too much. I’d expected “so bad it’s good,” but it was “so bad it’s depressing.”

It was the fact I didn’t remember any of these stereotypes that made me reflect on their power. My memories of these shows were emotional. I remember laughter, suspense and empathy for the characters. But the stereotypes would not have gone over my head. They were probably assimilated into my thinking without question.

‘Unconscious bias’ is a phrase heard more often these days. It suggests stereotypes like these (that we may or may not recall being exposed to) are partly behind unconscious discrimination in the workplace and other parts of life. Finding ways to address this bias could let us make better business decisions. Two experts in the field, Howard J. Ross, author of Everyday bias: Identifying and navigating unconscious judgments in our daily lives, and Dr. Fatima Tresh, evidence-based business psychologist, explain what unconscious bias is and what business leaders can do about it.

What is unconscious bias?

Howard J. Ross: “The human brain is designed to learn from past experiences. For example, if we’re young and we touch a burner on a stove, we learn that it can burn us, so next time we approach one, we’re more hesitant and more careful, so we don’t get burned again. Bias is that brain function that lets us make quick determinations – largely to keep us safe. There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it can have us make the wrong decisions. Say, when a police officer approaches someone who looks dangerous to them because of racial stereotyping, they may pull the trigger when they shouldn’t have.”

Dr. Fatima Tresh: “We’re exposed to a phenomenal amount of information our brains cannot consciously process. “Rules of thumb” help us make quick decisions. These rules categorize people, events and objects based on our experiences. Our experiences include stereotypes we’ve been exposed to, sometimes leading us to make a poor decision.”

What impact can unconscious bias have in the workplace?

Dr. Tresh: “Some of the most common forms of bias are around how we perceive and interact with others. For example, ‘affinity bias’ is our tendency to prefer others similar to ourselves. The negative impact of unconscious bias comes from acting on these biases. Affinity bias may make us unconsciously advantage others similar to us and disadvantage those we think are different. Research has shown unconscious bias is one reason women, minority ethnic and other groups are underrepresented in leadership.”

Affinity bias is just one type of bias that can unconsciously influence us. Women-in-the-workplace non-profit Catalyst gives other kinds of bias and ways to limit their impact.

Howard J. Ross: “Unconscious biases inform most decisions we make.”
Howard J. Ross
Howard J. Ross, author of Everyday bias: Identifying and navigating unconscious judgments in our daily lives

In the workplace, we’re making decisions about people all the time – whether to hire them or give them a promotion – but also more subtle decisions, like how carefully we listen to someone or whether we give them a stretch assignment.

Howard J. Ross, author of Everyday Bias

“When those biases are coupled with racial, gender or other stereotypes, it may lean us towards unfairly favoring particular groups.”

What can business leaders do to address unconscious bias?

Howard J. Ross: “There’s been a big push to do unconscious bias training. It’s part of the solution but won’t resolve anything on its own. If you go back to the same system and organization, you’re likely to drift back to the same behavior. Unconscious bias training has the biggest impact when it helps people understand how they think and make decisions.

“After training, use nudging or priming techniques: Reminders built into the system that nudge us toward doing the right thing. I call them ‘at-the-moment training.’ If you had unconscious bias training four months ago, but you go into a performance review and quickly read, ‘Five ways to avoid bias in performance reviews,’ it’s at the front of your mind when it matters most.

“Then look for ways to mitigate bias in structures and systems. How do we interview? How do we hire? How do we decide on promotions? Using interview panels rather than one interviewer helps. Giving candidates the questions a day in advance helps balance out native and non-native language speakers. My book, Everyday bias has advice about how to reduce the impact of unconscious bias at work.”

Dr. Tresh: “Leaders should be aware of the impact of unconscious bias and explore their own biases. They should reflect on how they communicate with their team members and those in their business, and notice when the quantity and quality of communication differ between individuals and groups.”
unconscious bias reducing impact
Dr. Fatima Tresh, evidence-based business psychologist

‘Blindspot bias’ is the tendency to spot biases in others but not in ourselves. It may help to start by accepting there are unconscious biases in all our decisions.

Dr. Fatima Tresh, evidence-based business psychologist

“When looking for potential influence of unconscious bias in systems and processes in your organizations, assume it’s there. Even technology has biases because people with biases design it.”

What does unconscious bias training involve?

Howard J. Ross: “Good training involves three parts.

“First is understanding what bias is. People begin to develop the ability to watch themselves think and intervene. We teach people why it matters and give them skills to do that.

“Next is helping people understand how this changes their decisions. Finally, what they can do about unconscious bias, personally and as an organization.”

Dr. Tresh: “Unconscious bias training might be designed to help people understand what unconscious bias is and its impact, reduce that bias, reduce conscious biases or change behavior.

“You’ll often be asked to take a bias test, measuring your reaction time when grouping concepts (say, ‘good’ or ‘bad’) with different groups of people (say, ‘men’ and ‘women.’) The tests are designed to show that people group stereotypically associated words faster (for example, man and leader,) and more slowly if the words are not linked by a stereotype (for example, woman and leader.) There are debates on the reliability of these tests.

“Training may also include techniques or tips for reducing personal unconscious bias or mitigating the impact of it.”

Dr. Tresh, you looked at the effectiveness of unconscious bias training for the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission with Doyin Atewologun and Tinu Cornish. What did you find out?

Dr. Tresh: “Most unconscious bias training is limited to raising participants’ awareness about what unconscious bias is. The ‘gold standard’ is changing people’s behavior, but evidence for that is limited. Research shows rigorous training designed to treat bias as a habit may have longer-term effects on behavior.
unconscious bias reducing impactThere are potential backlash effects from unconscious bias training. It may emphasize negative stereotypes without challenging them, perhaps amplifying the stereotype for the participants.”

Some people, such as white men, can be reluctant to learn about unconscious bias because they think they’re perceived as the problem. What would you say to those concerns?

Howard J. Ross: “Blaming and shaming doesn’t help. We try to educate people. We give them an opportunity to try out new ways of thinking.”

Howard, you’ve been quoted as saying, “Replace your exclamation marks with question marks.” Why is that so important for leaders?

Howard J. Ross: “Successful people tend to be more sure of themselves. They stop questioning their assumptions and conclusions. They’re liable to think, “This person is this way,” or “this situation should be handled this way.” Being more questioning might mean thinking, “They might be this way, but they might be another way,” or “What’s the best way to handle this?” It brings a spirit of inquiry rather than assurity.”

“My research found that when someone meets the criteria for leadership potential, whether their potential is recognized depends on their gender, position in the group and perceived similarity to the team manager.

“I also looked at how stereotypes and business culture influence how we see our own leadership potential. Those from underrepresented groups rated their leadership potential less highly.”

So what should we be doing about unconscious bias?

Tresh and Ross highlighted that unconscious bias training can be useful, but may not be enough on its own to reduce the influence of bias on business decisions. How should we use understanding unconscious bias to make our workplaces fairer?

1.    Make unconscious bias part of leadership training

In an article on Quartz at Work, Mastercard’s Chief Inclusion Officer Randall Tucker points out unconscious bias training is framed differently to other workplace education. He thinks the words ‘unconscious bias training’ make people defensive by emphasizing the negative. Workshops on financial acumen, executive presence or almost any other topic in corporate training are presented to employees in positive terms. “No one says ‘You need financial deficiency training,'” he says.

Tucker thinks unconscious bias training should be part of leadership training. “If [the training] is about leadership… people don’t have to take off their inclusion hat and then put on a leadership hat. It’s the same hat.”

2.    Collect detailed data so you can see where the problems are

Ross emphasizes the value of collecting detailed data about your hiring processes. “If your business finds it’s only hiring 20 percent women, you need to identify the scale of the problem at each point by collecting the percentages who apply for jobs that are women, get a job offer, accept the offer and are successful after six months.

“These numbers will show you where you need the most change. For example, if you find you’ve got low numbers of women applying, you may need to look at where and how you advertise. If there’s a drop-off in how many are successful after six months, look at how you’re inducting people and how they’re managed.”

3.    Take practical steps to reduce the impact of unconscious bias

Tresh and Ross describe how we acquire biases across a lifetime – or at least, starting in early life. Working to undo bias may be a long process, while the need for organizations to change – appointing and promoting the best possible people – is immediate. Tresh pointed to the difference between manager assessments of leadership potential and more objective measures, suggesting there may be better ways to identify employees with leadership potential than just asking managers what they think.

In a Forbes article, Laurence Bradford asks a range of tech companies for their strategies to mitigate bias. Their advice includes reviewing job descriptions for coded sexist or in-group language, establishing parental support packages before anyone needs them and making sure perks (like a group meal out) are offered at times when everyone can attend.

In the same article, AI communications company Dialpad goes beyond the oft-cited examples of AI amplifying human biases when sorting resumés, proposing a technological ‘patch’ for bias. Chief Human Resources Officer Tasha Liniger says, “[In any meeting] the designated notetaker is… probably not a white male. [Being trapped] at their keyboard reduces their chances of being able to think creatively and offer ideas. AI-driven speech recognition and real-time transcription can help level the playing field in those moments.”

Tech industries often show bias in role and gender association. In cybersecurity, you often hear about the “good guys” fighting the “bad guys.” But cybercriminals, and those who stand against them, are all types of people.

It’s time to make the structures and systems of your organization fairer to all. The pressures of global recession in the wake of COVID-19 means no business can afford to rest on its laurels. We may not be able to untangle the effects of stereotypes on our subconscious easily. Still, we can take practical steps to limit the power of bias, letting us make better, fairer decisions.

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About authors

Suraya Casey is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based in New Zealand. Her interests include cybersecurity, technology, climate, transport, healthcare and accessibility.