Understanding and Unlearning Bias
As we go through the cycle of socialization, we naturally form biases against certain groups of people, ideas, places, and more. We can categorize these biases into two groups.
- Conscious bias is easy to spot because it’s blatant. The person engaging in biased behavior is aware of their attitude and acts on it willingly.
- Unconscious bias is harder to spot because even well-intentioned people may not be aware that they hold beliefs or values that show bias against certain groups.
Bias forms through internalized factors we pick up through social conditioning. They include:
- Prejudice: An unreasonable dislike of or preference for a person, group, custom, etc., especially when it is based on their race, religion, sex, etc.
- Stereotypes: A fixed idea or image many people have of a particular type of person or thing, which is often not true in reality.
- Assumptions: A belief or feeling that something is true or that something will happen, although there is no proof.
So, what’s so dangerous about bias? Let’s start by examining five workplace consequences we can easily recognize.
- Static recruiting and hiring: Hiring managers who fall into patterns of unconscious bias tend to bring in the same type of person. Often, managers will gravitate toward those who remind them of themselves or who have familiar strengths and weaknesses. As a result, instead of building a diverse workforce of dynamic employees, hiring managers primarily hire the same kind of person, over and over.
- Stifled creative thinking: Unconscious biases stunt innovation and constrain our ability to “think outside the box.” We only pay attention to what we expect to see. That thinking is dangerous, especially when dealing with customers, because it causes us to build ideas based on stereotypes rather than focusing on what people actually need.
- Unfair performance evaluations: During performance evaluations, unconscious biases can lead to unfair reviews. Managers may consider irrelevant factors. For example, they might view a woman’s success as the product of teamwork rather than individual effort. Or, a reviewer might assume that an introvert’s quiet demeanor translates to a lack of enthusiasm.
- Unequal opportunities: Is everyone within your company truly given the same opportunities? Are all your policies equal across the board? For example, perhaps only new mothers can have flexible working schedules (as opposed to new fathers). Or maybe certain employees are excluded from discussions based on non-skill-related factors, such as a disability or foreign accent. Even when you think you’re just being considerate, you may be acting on unconscious bias.
- Arbitrary succession planning: Those in management and executive positions should be in those roles because of their skills and knowledge. However, when we give in to our unconscious biases, promotions and career growth opportunities go to those who most resemble our mental images of leaders—rather than those who have the expertise to push a company forward.
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