Unconscious bias is the automatic, unintentional bias or prejudice that influences our attitudes and actions towards certain groups of people – without our conscious control.

What is unconscious bias or subconscious bias? 

The definition of unconscious bias (also known as subconscious bias) is the inherent prejudice or preference for or against a person or a group. It often forms outside conscious awareness, influencing thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.

These biases can be based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and sexual orientation, and they affect our behaviors and interactions with others, leading to discrimination (such as sexism, ageism, and ableism), and exclusion. 

Because we are unaware of the subconscious bias, it is also referred to as hidden bias, unaware bias, unintentional bias, and implicit bias. 

Even though the bias is implicit and unintentional, it can still negatively impact and perpetuate inequality and discrimination. 

Bias develops over time

Often, biases and prejudices develop during childhood because of personal experiences or learnt through parents or external adult influence, education systems and popular media (TV, movies, books etc.).

As a result, hidden biases can be forged over many years – going completely undetected

For example, it may lead to an individual believing that a woman’s place is in the home rather than working. Or associate people of other ethnicities with negative personality traits or crime. These biases are formed and cultivated from an early age, often out of sight. Thus, making it harder to challenge later in life.

Different types of unconscious bias 

There are different types of unconscious bias. Below, you can read about the most common ones.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that confirms or strengthens your belief or values, which is difficult to dislodge once affirmed. It can be described as both an unconscious and conscious bias).

If you make a decision or draw a conclusion about someone based on your own experience, belief or preconception, you fall prey to confirmation bias. 

Our early interactions and experiences with others can influence our long-term feelings and attitudes about an individual or group – regardless of their current actions. To avoid this bias, you must give individuals a second chance and identify and ignore your in-built prejudice to evaluate the individual fairly.

Halo effect

The halo effect is when a person’s overall impression of someone influences their judgements about their character or abilities.

For instance, when someone is physically attractive, they may be perceived as more intelligent, competent, or trustworthy – even if there is no evidence to support that. On the other hand, when a person is perceived as unattractive, they can be judged more harshly.

The subjective judgment about a person’s character or abilities can happen on a conscious and unconscious level.

Affinity bias

Affinity bias is another type of unconscious bias and refers to the tendency to favor or be attracted to people who are similar to you in some way – such as having similar backgrounds, experiences, or interests. 

This bias can lead to unfair decision-making in areas such as hiring or promotion.

For example, a hiring manager may be more likely to hire someone who went to the same university even though another candidate may be more qualified.

This type of bias can occur consciously but without our awareness due to our unconscious beliefs and assumptions about the people around us.

Attribution bias

Attribution bias is another popular type of hidden bias. It refers to the tendency to make 

 assumptions or judgements about the causes of other people’s behavior. Those assumptions are often based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

This type of bias can lead people to make unfair or inaccurate conclusions about others based on limited information or personal bias. Additionally, it can be a significant barrier to effective communication and collaboration.

For example, people with financial difficulties may be labeled lazy or irresponsible by others unaware of their circumstances. The labeling might occur without people realizing it, which exemplifies the unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias in the workplace

Unconscious bias in the workplace is a common issue. For example, a study shows that 80 percent of employers admit to making decisions based on regional accents, which is a problem because the bias hinders diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

The problem is that while it usually goes unrecognized, it affects everyone in the workplace. Hiring decisions, promotions, and performance evaluations are also affected, creating disparities and limiting opportunities for certain people.

Additionally, unconscious bias in the workplace can lead to exclusion and a lack of psychological safety, which affects team dynamics and productivity.

How to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace

Even though unconscious bias happens unconsciously, there are ways to stop unconscious bias. Below is a list of ways to address and tackle biases in the workplace.

Recognize your own biases

First, you must be honest with yourself about the stereotypes you might have. 

Let’s say a female hiring manager consciously believes that men and women are equally effective leaders. However, she simultaneously believes that men don’t have the same empathy and people skills as women.

Such bias could influence the managers’ actions, so male candidates are excluded from specific roles or positions. That is when the biases become a critical issue, leading to exclusion and discrimination. 

Therefore, all individuals must recognize their biases – especially concerning hiring or promotional decisions.

Raising awareness

One of the most efficient ways of stopping unconscious bias is to raise awareness. This could include the following measures:

Creating a safe and inclusive work environment where employees feel comfortable discussing and addressing biases is essential to tackle the issues. Employees can learn to assess and shape their behavior through awareness and reflection. Additionally, they learn to broaden their mindset, which helps ensure an empathetic workplace welcoming diverse ideas and viewpoints. 

Implementing policies and practices

Another approach to tackling unconscious bias includes standardizing company policies, procedures, and protocols. For example, managers should receive training, and job selection processes should focus on objective and quantifiable measures.

By reviewing policies and procedures, a workplace can identify discriminatory policies to modify the situation. Here is a list of ways to do so:

A further example is establishing diversity and inclusion committees to oversee and monitor progress towards the above mentioned goals.

Providing unconscious bias training

A practical step companies can take is to provide training on managing unconscious bias, which aims to educate individuals on the different types of prejudice and how they manifest in the workplace.

This training helps individuals recognize and manage their hidden biases, enabling them to make more equitable and inclusive decisions.

It can be delivered in various formats such as:

What is unconscious bias training, and how does it work?

Education is an essential step in creating awareness of unconscious bias. But unfortunately, diversity programs and similar efforts might not make an impact because the biases are not conscious decisions.

Instead, newer and holistic approaches might help the HR teams in educating the organization, such as the following:

Training and a concerted effort throughout the organization led by HR can help reduce workplace biases. The purpose of the exercise is to teach individuals how to recognize potentially discriminatory behavior and teach them how to combat it in daily decision-making situations.

Awareness training also includes creating conversations about which biases exist within the company and discussing the steps the company can take to minimize them.

A real-life example of how to stop unconscious bias

Deloitte, the global professional services firm, developed an “Inclusive Leadership” program that addresses unconscious bias and promotes diversity and inclusion. 

The company pinpointed inclusive leadership as one of the most significant elements in the strategy and implemented a diverse recruiting strategy. Additionally, Deloitte created employee resource groups to support underrepresented groups. 

According to a study conducted by Deloitte, its diversity efforts contributed to a 5 percent increase in the overall representation of women and ethnic minorities in leadership positions. 

Which was only possible through raising unconscious bias awareness. 

The study also found that teams with inclusive cultures are 17 percent more likely to report that they are high performing and 20 percent more likely to say that they make high-quality decisions. 

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