According to a recent article published by McKinsey & Company, unconscious biases can be shaping our thinking more than we know.
Julia Sperling is a medical doctor with a background in neuroscience. She’s also a faculty member of McKinsey Leadership Development, where she helps aspiring leaders see how their thinking is shaped by cognitive biases, and how they can overcome them.
Research has shown not only how unconscious bias can be measured—using what researchers call ‘implicit association testing,’ for example—but also how it can be countered to achieve better results.
Indeed, Julia’s work focuses on shifting mindsets and behaviors by highlighting beliefs and biases that constrain personal growth, learning, and job performance.
So what exactly is unconscious bias?
“Research suggests that we instinctively categorize people and things using easily observed criteria such as age, weight, skin color, and gender. But we also classify people according to educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title, automatically assigning presumed traits to anyone we subconsciously put in those groups.
The ‘advantage’ of this system is that it saves us time and effort processing information about people, allowing us to spend more of our mental resources on other tasks. The clear disadvantage is that it can lead us to make assumptions about them and take action based on those biases. This results in a tendency to rely on stereotypes, even if we don’t consciously believe in them” (Mind Tools).
In other words, unconscious bias can sometimes lead to blind spots, which can then lead to discrimination.
It’s important to be aware of your own biases (we all have them) so that you can shift your blind spots and avoid discriminating against others.
So how do you become more aware of your own biases and shift them to avoid discriminating against those in your personal and professional life?
Here are 5 strategies you can implement today:
- Be self-aware when it comes to your inner monologue.Are you basing your decisions on 30-second snap judgments? While you won’t be able to keep the thoughts from surfacing, that doesn’t mean you have to subscribe to them and continue that line of thinking. Learn to pause your thoughts in their tracks and deeply examine them to better understand where they’re coming from and why. Practicing this habit will help you become more self-aware and questioning your judgements will become second nature.
- Identify your unconscious preferences. The Implicit Association Test (IAT, www.implicit.harvard.edu) can help with this. This free tool can help you identify patterns in your life such as similarities in the persons you socialize with or tend to hire. Patterns don’t automatically indicate bias. But if you see a pattern, it would be wise to examine it further.
- Educate your team. Unconscious bias is something that can affect any employee, so it’s important for organisations to train their team members on how to identify unconscious bias and also overcome it. Keying employees in to how people think results in more egalitarian behaviors across the organization.
- Step out of your comfort zone. If you discover that you view a particular group with discomfort, make a conscious effort to learn more about that group. Expose yourself to positive images and other information related to that group. Don’t be afraid to question yourself. If others question your decisions, instead of reacting defensively, try to listen to the feedback. Be open to change.
In order to create a fairer workplace for your team members, it’s of the utmost importance that leaders learn to recognise their biases and keep those biases from influencing important decisions.
When they do, employees will thrive and flourish, making for a more robust organisation.
And if you’d like to book an Unconscious Bias training for your team, consider investing in one of Shaping Change’s Lunch & Learn trainings all about Unconscious Bias. In this session, organisational behaviours expert Ros Cardinal will discuss our human instincts that drive our thinking, explore some of the common unconscious biases that impact in the workplace, and give you some key take-aways for challenging the barriers to creating and valuing diversity at work.