Bias is a feeling in favor or against an individual or a group. It is often based on unfair judgment and involves the action of supporting or opposing someone or something in a one-sided way.
What does bias mean?
The way we communicate with each other is determined by our own belief system, a vast and infinitely complex webwork of biases, stereotypes, social values and discrimination. We often don’t realize that the words we use, how we react in a given situation, or even our body language, might be offensive to the people around us.
We all hold beliefs and assumptions at an unconscious level. Unconscious bias is even more powerful than conscious or explicit prejudice, because our brains are constantly processing new information and compartmentalizing it on an unconscious level. It’s how the brain makes sense of the world.
A lot of the time, we don’t even know that we’re being biased.
What’s the science on bias meaning?
The question “what is bias?” has evolved over the years. We know that biases originate from the tendency of the human brain to interpret social worlds by organizing them into categories.
We also know that unconscious biases develop early in our childhood, as early as 3 or 4 years old, and keep developing throughout the different stages of childhood. Family, friends, social groups and consumer patterns all help develop and strengthen our biases.
Is bias that bad?
Bias isn’t necessarily negative. At its core, it’s the way we react when making certain choices. Bias keeps us from crossing a busy street without looking twice. It’s what makes us avoid walking at night in a dimly lit neighborhood.
Bias is also what makes us choose Pepsi over Coke, Nike over Adidas, or Apple over Microsoft. These biases are inherently neutral, and can actually help us make faster decisions through cognitive shortcuts that the brain uses to save time and energy.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that while certain biases may have some beneficial aspects, they often lead to stereotypes, discrimination, bigotry, intolerance, narrow-mindedness and unfair judgements.
This is why we need to be aware of our biases, challenge them when necessary, and work toward making the people around us feel respected and included.
How to identify bias through common stereotypes
Bias, especially unconscious bias, can be hard to put a finger on. More often than not, we simply don’t realize that we’re letting our preconceived beliefs affect how we think about another individual or group.
When identified, it’s possible to minimize the impact of bias so iit doesn’t translate into prejudice or discrimination.
Common negative stereotypes:
- The gender stereotype: Men are more ambitious; women are more compassionate.
- The LGBTQIA+ stereotype: LGBTQIA+ people live more salient lives and often demand more attention.
- The neurodiversity stereotype: People with ADHD are hyperactive and impulsive. People with OCD are overly tidy or clean.
- The race and ethnicity stereotype: Asian people are good at math and hardworking. Black people lack work ethic, are more aggressive and hostile in the workplace.
- The age stereotype: Older employees have more difficulties in learning new processes and struggle to adapt. Younger employees are less emotionally mature and unreliable.
- The disability stereotype: People with disabilities are less capable than their peers. Being disabled means you’re dependent on a wheelchair.
The difference between conscious and unconscious bias
It’s important to remember that there are many different types of bias. Knowing which ones are more likely to show up in the way we communicate makes it easier to change our behavior.
Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is a preconceived assumption, opinion or belief that we hold unconsciously. It manifests when our brains make a quick judgment based on a piece of information it has received, then adds meaning to it. This directly affects our decision-making and how we behave toward others.
For example, a colleague might say something to you that you don’t like, even though they mean well. This could be the result of previous workplace experiences, which leads you to make unconscious negative assumptions about a colleague at your new workplace.
Another example is when we form an overall positive impression of a person based on a single positive quality or trait. For instance, we find someone physically attractive and assume they’re also intelligent or competent, even without direct evidence.
Conscious bias or stereotypes are beliefs we have about certain individuals or social groups. We use stereotypes to make sense of the world in the simplest form possible by categorizing people and attributing them certain characteristics.
This is why we’re more likely to speak louder when we’re with elderly people, or hire a younger candidate because we think they’d be better suited for the job than an older one. Ageism is a widespread form of conscious bias.
Another example is when we assume that a candidate who went to Harvard or Yale is better suited for a job than a candidate who studied at a less prestigious school. This is called the halo effect. When our focus is determined by our own personal preferences, it can lead to overlooking other negative traits.
How does bias manifest in the language of your company?
Every company has its own language. When used consciously, language can create a workplace where every employee feels valued, respected and heard. Language builds relationships, supports inclusion and bolsters creativity.
However, it can also keep stereotypes and biases alive and thriving.We generally associate non-inclusive communication with blatant discriminatory or prejudicial language. But language is full of nuance. We already know that we shouldn’t express ourselves in ways that discriminate or cause harm. There are other less obvious verbal and non-verbal methods of expression that can be just as prejudicial.
Positive and negative stereotypes can both be harmful
Stereotypes can be both positive and negative, and equally harmful.
In the workplace, age stereotypes are often based on the assumption that older people are less efficient, slower learners and have a harder time adapting to new processes.
The opposite of this is the positive stereotype of the young, tech-savvy employee who thinks out of the box. At the same time, it can be assumed that a younger person is less able to perform certain roles because they don’t have the experience, are emotionally immature or unreliable.
Both stereotypes can be harmful because they create a social prejudice that the same is true for all younger employees or candidates.
Inclusive communication and its impact in the workplace
Inclusive writing and communication has the power to shape a more equitable work culture where everyone feels welcome. At its core, it’s about communicating in a way that recognizes, responds to and supports the diversity of our society.
It is fundamentally free from bias and stereotypes.
When applied correctly and integrally, inclusive communication seeks to include everyone, and exclude no one. When companies focus on inclusive communication, it contributes to an environment where diverse voices are heard and valued, no matter their background, culture, gender, abilities or perspectives.
Inclusion leads to a sense of belonging, which in turn fosters innovation, creativity and productivity. In the simplest of terms, it helps create a more inclusive workplace culture.
How we speak to each other is essentially linked to how we treat each other. Inclusive communication should therefore be a vital part of your diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy. Ideally, it will be a first vital stepping stone on this important journey.
Integrating inclusive communication as part of your DEI strategy, makes it easier to promote behaviors that help build the culture you want in your workplace.
A DEI strategy to combat biases in the workplace
Conscious communication is crucial to combating biases, and it’s important to frame it within the larger conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion. Inclusive communication is the underlying current for creating a business culture where everyone feels included.
Language and communication impact every single internal and external process in an organization. Learning to use a language that reflects the multifaceted culture of the workplace, and the diversity of our society, is an ongoing process. A collective effort that takes time.
At the core, it is about creating an environment that encourages the continuous practice of conscious communication. Learning to communicate responsibly depends on everyone. It goes beyond unconscious bias meetings or weekly group activities. It is about cultivating a growth mindset that enables employees to learn and share freely in a nonjudgmental and equitable space.
In the field of DEI, language is vital and must continue to evolve to accommodate different perspectives and identities, eliminating terminology that is discriminatory and excluding. If we can identify our biases through the use of conscious communication, we can reshape our language and help build more inclusive workplaces — as employees, managers and leaders.