A Bit About Unconscious Biases
Updated: Jul 25
Unconscious bias refers to decisions that our brain makes about a person or a situation automatically before we process all the information in front of us. Although we might not want to admit it, unconscious bias exists in each person’s world view. We are influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these biases or be aware of their full impact on our behavior and decision making process.
There is overwhelming evidence that unconscious bias seeps into people-related decisions that affect recruitment and employee retention. Where unconscious bias is prevalent, organizations will lack diversity of thought, workplace inclusion will be diminished, and employees will not feel welcome and free to be themselves.
Unconscious bias can manifest itself in a variety of ways and can only be mitigated through awareness and acknowledgement. By ensuring we are cognizant of these inherent biases, we will recognize our unconscious thoughts and can review decisions and ensure they are made in, as much as possible, an impartial light.
The various types of unconscious bias are:
Affinity bias: A preference for people who are similar to us. We may find an individual familiar and easier to relate to because of shared characteristics. This bias can lead to a homogenous workforce rather than diversity of thought.
For example, project teams are often created by a single person based on who they get along well and share common interests with. This, however, can lead to homogenous thought within the team and they may struggle to solve and overcome problems. To overcome this, ensure that the team is chosen based on varied skillsets.
Attribution bias: A bias that attributes our successes to our own skills, and our failures to factors outside our control but comes to the opposite conclusion for people we do not know.
For example, when hiring, attribution bias can cause recruiters to assume a candidate is unfit for the job because of something unusual on their resume or unexpected behavior during the interview. Interviews with more than one interviewer can ensure that there is a more rounded assessment of the candidate’s skillset.
Conformity bias: A tendency to take cues and follow others to arrive at a decision. Unfortunately, a unanimous decision is not necessarily the right decision if everyone is coming at it from the same perspective.
For example, in a staff meeting where everyone is highlighting a colleague’s mistakes over the past month, the conversation may continue on the same trajectory creating a unanimous decision that the person is not a good fit. By interrupting the conversation to ask about what positive actions the colleague has taken, you can break the stream of unconscious thinking and produce a more comprehensive assessment, even if the overall conclusion is the same.
Confirmation bias: A tendency to look for evidence that backs up our initial opinion of someone, while overlooking information that contradicts our view.
For example, during yearly performance reviews a candidate could receive negative feedback for the year based on one negative interaction. Completing feedback on a more frequent basis and collecting feedback from a variety of sources can equate to a more rounded performance assessment.
Contrast effect: A habit of comparing people and things against others to help us put them in context. This means decisions are not made on a individual’s merits but instead how they compare against each other.
For example, looking at a number of resumes in a row, we tend to compare and contrast them. We judge whether or not the person in front of us did as well as the person that came before them. Creating a pros and cons list for everyone and involving multiple parties in the process will ensure candidates are assessed on merit.
Gender bias: A bias that believes certain genders are more suitable for certain tasks and roles.
For example, language in job descriptions can sometime resonate more with one gender over another. For instance, "analyze" and "determine" are typically associated with male traits, while "collaborate" and "support" are considered female. Avoiding these gendered terms as well as ensuring that pronouns such as ‘she/he’ are exchanged for ‘you’ will help overcome gender bias and ensure the description applies to everyone.
Halo Effect: A tendency to overly focus on the good aspects of a person letting the ‘halo’ glow affect our opinion of everything else about them. This results in overlooking their negative aspects.
For example, when reviewing a prospective candidate resume, you may see that they went to a particular university which influences your opinions positively and overshadows other areas that they may fall down on. By making yourself aware of your own biases and asking yourself if those biases have impacted your decision, you can confirm whether the candidate is the correct person for the role.
Horns Effects: A tendency to overly focus on the negative aspects of a person and letting that shade our view from their positive aspects.
For example, when reviewing the work of an employee we might be put off by the fact that they have not used the correct format or style. This can influence our opinions negatively, causing their work to be criticized more negatively than necessary.
Unconscious biases create barriers to inclusion, performance, engagement, and, ultimately, innovation. While we cannot completely escape our own unconscious biases, understanding what they are and how to mitigate their impact is a skill that everyone can learn.