Tackling Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Dominika Dudek02/29/2024

Tackling Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

How Do Our Brains Work?

Psychologists have known for some time that we have two operating systems for processing information. Working simultaneously, within the brain, but doing very different things with the same information: the conscious and the unconscious.

Consciousness is part of our new brain developed fairly recently. This is where most of the clever problem-solving and decision-making thinking goes on. It is slow in operation, takes several seconds to process even basic information and to make decisions, is very limited in processing power, and relies on logically processing data. We believe “the conscious” is in control because we see all of the achievements of technology, civil society, and agriculture.

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The unconscious on the other hand is rarely seen working. It runs constantly and without any effort in the background handling all of our routine information. Possessing a sort of autopilot, instead of being slow and data-driven, it is incredibly fast and driven by intuition. It is a processing method needed by our ancestors to make rapid survival decisions. This is very convenient for the brain, it prevents having to use the conscious to think about every situation as unique.

The brain makes neural connections from the patterns seen in our lives but also from the media we absorb and what the people we care about say, as well as our upbringing. Those connections once wired are hard to unwire and we can use them automatically and without knowing it. It is our caveman or cavewoman brain.

For example, we tend to wire more positive connections for people who are like us, look like us, sound like us, and share our background culture, and interests. That leaves people who are less like us not being treated positively

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious biases are generated by a function in our brain that allows us to make decisions faster through a series of mental shortcuts. This shapes our view of the world and other people and can lead to questionable decisions being made. This means that we often treat people and situations through the prism of unconscious generalizations and preconceived judgments rather than using a set of objective qualitative and quantitative criteria. That is why unconscious bias is so dangerous. They can lead to discrimination end exclusion.

Each of us is exposed to Unconscious Bias. Therefore, we should not ask ourselves IF I HAVE ANY UNCONSCIOUS BIASES, but rather ask ourselves WHICH OF THEM?

How Unconscious Bias May Affect the Workplace

Have you ever made a decision based on “gut feeling,”? If yes you’re likely to make them on the basis of unconscious bias. The best way to prevent yourself from succumbing to these unconscious biases is to become aware of them and take action to prevent them when recruiting, hiring, and retaining employees, and making decisions in general.

For example - we are more likely to hire a university graduate from our alma mater or a candidate from our hometown. The same mechanism makes women less likely to work in occupations that are customarily considered "male" and men in those considered "female" - because our mind subconsciously sends us a message that they will not work in them.

What Can We Do With Our Biases?

Eliminating cognitive biases is not always easy. How we judge other people is influenced by a number of different characteristics - from age, gender, and dress style, to details such as hair color, tone of voice, name, and even clean or dirty shoes.

Unconscious bias can lead to discrimination and various problems at work. How to avoid it? First of all, it is important to realize that diversity is needed for an organization to develop. Building an open, inclusive culture is an important challenge for managers and leaders. It is worth trying to reject stereotypes and focus on an individual approach.

One way to become aware of the prejudices I succumb to is to take the unconscious bias test. It’s available in many languages: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. The test results indicate that even people who are very aware of a phenomenon (racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc.), and even belong to the group that is the target of such prejudices, may have negative, unconscious bias against this group. Begin to watch out for your biased behavior. Consider what sources you get your information from. Make a list of the social groups you come into contact with.
Try it!

In Monterail we organize regular workshops/training where we discuss issues related to these biases. Although training on this phenomenon does not lead to change in itself. The training function is to show the problem and increase its awareness. However, training is not the “only” intervention that can be taken to weaken or eradicate prejudices at work. 

What else can I do in my organization?

  • Recruitment - make sure that there are different people at the recruitment meetings. Anonymize the CV you submit to hiring managers so that they make decisions about invitations to the next steps based on your data. Think about what made you judge a given candidate in this and no other way. Talk to members of the recruiting team about potential bias risks.
  • Promotion processes and remuneration system - make sure that the process of promotion and evaluation of employees is objective and data-based. Compare the data, and check if there is a gender gap in the organization.
  • Talk about diversity in the workplace - talking about diversity, noticing it, caring for it is a good starting point to debunk the stereotypes behind which biases hide.

Biases Will Always Be With Us (Unfortunately)

Don’t get me wrong… but in my opinion, the unconscious mind is amazing. It can process vastly more information than our conscious mind by using shortcuts based on our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences to make decisions about everything around us. The snag is it's wrong quite a lot of the time. Especially on matters that need rational thinking. And knowing this allows us to understand that not all of our first impressions are correct.

Observing ourselves and observing the basis on which we make choices and judgments of who we employ, who we like to go to lunch with, who we invite to discuss during meetings, and with whom we feel like working or not, is the first step to make the unconscious become more conscious.

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Dominika Dudek avatar
Dominika Dudek