Are We All Really Just Unconscious?

We all make quick decisions, sometimes unaware that we’ve even made them. But unless we’re part of the walking dead, the majority of our actions include conscious thoughts on issues like what type of careers we’ll pursue, who will be our friends and where we’ll live.

The same is true in our daily work lives where the combination of our non-thinking and purposeful choices affects the quality of what we do and the impact that our decisions have on others. To build inclusive workplaces, both must be given proper attention. Ultimately, though, it’s how we act, rather than why we act, that matters most and where leaders should be focusing their attention.  

Right now, many organizations are giving special consideration to the role that our unconscious thought processes, or biases, have on workplace decisions. These decisions range from hiring among slates of candidates to how individuals are perceived and treated due to characteristics such as their race, gender, ethnicity, age and religion.

The premise is that blatant actions of discrimination, harassment, and exclusion are largely behind us and that we now need to be focusing on subtle, unconscious processes at work. Consequently, organizations are giving laser-focus to ferreting out the pernicious split-second reflexive actions that can boost or stall careers.

It’s critical that these biases be addressed. But we’re deluding ourselves if we believe that the world of the conscious has been cured of bias and that the majority of employment harms are arising from reflexive non-thinking actions, real though they are. But today, this is often how organizations perceive their workplaces.

Within a four-day span this month, the Justice Department released its Ferguson, Missouri Police Department report compiling intentional and outrageous acts of disparate treatment and impact, and a shocking video of a University of Oklahoma fraternity chant hit the news. Admittedly they are the most extreme stories from our recent news, though other outrageous situations are frequently reported.

These stories are significant beyond their own facts. What happens in our communities and universities is part of our national patchwork of cultures and is often mirrored in our workplaces, only with different actors and fact patterns. In our offices, plants, and field locations, blatantly improper actions – words and deeds, whether aired publicly or privately − still occur.

Some may be illegal and are challenged. Incredibly offensive stories hit the legal reports every day. Other actions may be just as severe but occur behind closed doors, may not be challenged, or lead to settlements and confidentiality agreements. What’s also overlooked is that subtle actions can be, and often are, the product of conscious thoughts whose intent is carefully concealed from the general public.

Intent is important; it determines whether an action is innocent, negligent, malicious, or purposeful. In our workplaces, it’s used to assess responsibility for actions that cause individual harm and business damage. The focus, however, should be on avoiding behaviors that can harm our workplaces.

As we try to improve the quality of our decisions and actions in our workplaces, irrespective of whether they occur consciously or unconsciously, let’s continue to emphasize standards of conduct that prevent problems across a wide range of situations – from hiring and promotion decisions to social interactions.   

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Workforce.