How To Tackle Unconscious Bias In The Workplace

unconscious bias in the workplace

What is an unconscious bias?


Unconscious bias is defined as the prejudice and or unsupported judgement that one has on another. This judgement can be either in favour of the person and or against them. Unlike conscious biases, unconscious biases are particularly dangerous as they manifest in our actions in subtle ways that go unnoticed to ourselves. Simple things like the tone we take with one coworker versus another can come from our unconscious bias.

Talking about unconscious bias is can make many uncomfortable as they are often rooted in views and opinions that we are not aware we hold. Moreover, for many, these may be views that we do not want to hold but do. But taking the time to have these conversations and or recognize these opinions is important for our self-reflection. More importantly, as leaders, it allows us to bring our best selves to work.


Key takeaways

  • Unconscious bias is the prejudice and or unsupported judgement that one has for another
  • As leaders, being aware of your unconscious biases is important for understanding how to lead your team in fair, equitable, and inclusive ways
  • Tackling unconscious bias at work is a key pillar for driving diversity in the workplace


Why is it important for leaders to recognize unconscious bias?

As organizations continue to evolve, they become key stakeholders in our social fabric and in our community. Being able to reflect the values of the community that it participates in is important. And with that, being able to recognize unconscious bias to ensure that it is participating thoughtfully becomes important.

Also, research shows that diversity in groups and thoughts produces real economic value for companies. Organizations that want a competitive edge need to be able to embody diversity and inclusion in thoughtful and authentic ways. To do this, they need to tackle unconscious bias at the workplace at all levels. This means providing all employees with the tools and means for recognizing unconscious bias in their own actions and others.

Below are examples of unconscious biases that are pervasive in the workplace.


Halo effect

The halo effect is the tendency to take an initial impression of a person and draw other judgements and or conclusions from them. We often see this with people who are physically attractive. Research shows that people who are physically attractive are more likely to land job offers than similarly qualified candidates who are less attractive.

Leadership action: when interviewing job candidates and or conducting performance reviews, reflect on how you are drawing conclusions about the individuals being evaluated. Are there clear data points to demonstrate your judgements? Or are you making an assertion with concrete examples?   


Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias occurs when you seek out information, opinions, and or perspectives that affirm your existing beliefs. People do this because it is a way of protecting themselves from the possibility of being wrong. Furthermore, practicing confirmation bias is mentally easier, as you do not have to deal with opposing views.

The greatest danger of confirmation bias is that it contributes to groupthink and minimizes the diversity of thought within work.

Leadership action: Assign an individual to play devil’s advocate for the group. Commit the group to listen to all points of view before making a decision. Alternatively, be the one to challenge the common point of view.


Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias happens when we are presented with an initial piece of data and or information and that data has an outsized influence on perceptions and judgements. A very common example of this is salary negotiation. With salary negotiations, the first number that is suggested is usually where the negotiations circle around. This is irrespective of whether the number is factually accurate based on market data.

Anchoring, like many biases, leads to poor decisions. With anchoring, in particular, this influence is subtle if all individuals involved are not aware of the bias. Take the example above, it can be dangerous as it can lead to overpaying if you are the employer or being underpaid if you are the candidate. A similar situation can happen when negotiating prices with vendors and or what price to acquire a company at.

Leadership action: Before engaging in the decision-making process, collate all available data points and conduct some analysis. This will equip your team with the best information and mitigate against anchoring.  


Attribution bias

Attribution bias is the tendency for us to view our successes as completely caused by our actions. On the flip side, when we experience failures, we believe this happened due to external factors. As leaders, attribution bias can be dangerous as we may not be giving credit where credit is due. For example, we may take an oversized view of our contributions to a team project and not demonstrate appreciation for the work that our colleagues have done.

Attribution bias affects how we view others. When we see others succeeding, we believe that the person is “lucky” rather than the success being a product of the persons’ hard work. When we see others failing, we view these failures as the fault of the individual. If left unchecked, attribution bias on others can leave leaders gaslighting their employees. For example, a manager and or colleague may believe a candidate was hired to fill diversity quotas and or affirmative action rather than on their own merits. Having this bias will lead the manager to provide fewer opportunities to the new employee as they believe they are less capable.

Leadership action: Review the work culture and processes to see how an individual’s success and rewards show up to you as a manager. Do you have a clear line of sight into the work and contributions of your team member? If you are finding that you want to attribute a person’s success to other factors, challenge yourself as to why you believe this and whether there are clear examples and data points to support this belief.


How to tackle pervasive unconscious biases

The effects of unconscious bias are long-standing and permeate all areas of the organization. And tackling unconscious bias is a pillar for reaching true diversity, equity, and inclusion within a workplace. With that, there are different things that leaders can do to work towards:

  • DEI as part of corporate strategy – in place of a one-day initiative or donations to external groups, organizations need to make DEI as part of their corporate strategy and rewards. This will align leaders at all levels to be thoughtful in how they plan and approach their work with a DEI lens in mind
  • Leadership behaviours – leaders who are active in having conversations unconscious bias and challenging their team members to whether they are truly engaging in unbias ways will signal to the team members that these are the values of the organization; in turn, they will replicate these behaviours as they begin to lead teams
  • Support through resources – provide different resources and tools to teach individuals about unconscious biases. Make these resources easily accessible by any employee. This means going beyond a one-day mandatory training. Instead, have a repository of materials and or other tools that employees can review.

To find out what biases you are prone to, take our free DISC Personality Assessment! 


Related Readings

Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in entrepreneurial leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:

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