5 Ways to Move Away From Unconscious Bias

Imagine the following scenario. There’s a woman leading the human resources team in her region in Europe. This star performer is ready to fill her departing boss’ role. But before she can even apply, the position is filled by an external hire.

The search for her boss’s successor began months before, and she was not even considered. She approached the global HR lead in her organization to ask why. “I didn’t think you wanted the role,” he said. “You would have had to move your entire family.”

What was it that made him think she did not want the role, she wondered? Why didn’t he at least ask? What did her family have to do with it?

Situations like this happen in organizations daily. People make assumptions based on limited or incomplete information — it’s called unconscious bias.

To combat this bias, organizations may consider training or make strategic efforts to build a more inclusive culture. Whichever method is chosen, the following five steps can help chip away at the faulty logic that informs people’s actions on a daily basis.

1. Face it. You have it. The “it” is unconscious bias. People may need to simply own up to the fact they are likely not one of the few human beings on the planet who is free from unconscious bias, and do something about it. Accepting this reality creates that next question: “So now what?”

2. Learn to see it in action. Many people can relate to driving home and not remembering the trip, or sending an email while on a conference call. These are examples of operating at what social psychologist and industry leader Tony Greenwald refers to as second-level mental operations. We aren’t conscious, intentional and rational, we’re just doing and doing fine. Research posits people interact with others at this level about 99 percent of the time.

3. Work at being more present. Try this at home first. For instance, if you’re married, mute the TV when your spouse is talking; put down the phone at the restaurant; force yourself to stop thinking about work when interacting with friends and family. Then try it at work.

4. Look deeper. It can be easier to be present with people at work with whom you share similarities. Those who are different make us want to rely on the superficial and refrain from deeper, more meaningful interactions for fear of discomfort and the unknown. Oppose the logical response that may feel more natural, and choose the one that is more effective. It won’t work every time, but it doesn’t have to — it only needs to work more times than it is right now.

5. Trust but verify. Believe that everyone the company hires, or has hired, has the potential to contribute at higher levels. Expressing this belief will help people engage and do their best work, though not everyone will respond. Keeping this in mind also can help to shape future interactions, as it replaces some of the unconscious bias from which a person may have been operating. This doesn’t mean everyone is equally smart or qualified. It means assumptions about capabilities can and should be replaced with actual data.

Seem simple or idealistic? Try it. At best you will be a more present parent/partner or peer. You may discover skills and capabilities on your team you didn’t know about. At worst, things will stay the same, but it’s more likely you will be pleased with the results.