Our workplaces and cultures are full of subtle and not-so-subtle biases. Bias about gender, race, nationality, culture, educational background, politics, sexuality, body-type and age influence our decision-making and social interactions.

Biases can make living and working in our increasingly diverse, globally connected environments challenging. They can also blind us to the value that people from other cultures, backgrounds, genders and ages can bring to our workplaces and communities, limiting opportunities for talented people who don’t fit prevailing norms.

That is why building a culture of diversity and inclusion often needs to start by examining biases and helping people get around them so they can identify, promote and support talented people who may not otherwise be on the radar.

Biases in the brain

Our brains are prone to biases, whether we are conscious of them or not. These biases can lead us to pre-judge a situation or person, playing in to cultural stereotypes or our own assumptions.

For example, inbuilt mechanisms designed to enable our survival make us particularly responsive and watchful for threatening situations in our social environment. When we meet people, our brains are ready to make a snap decision: Are they friend or foe? In or out of the social group we normally relate to? Can we trust them?

One of the reasons we are so prone to bias is that we need to navigate complex social interactions and rapidly make decisions. To short-track this process, our brains store bits of knowledge about our cultural and social environment that we encounter often. When we lack all the facts or need to make a quick decision, our unconscious biases fill in the gaps.

These habitual patterns of thought can lead to errors in perception, recall, reasoning and decisions. Once stored in our minds, these hidden biases determine our behaviour toward people, often hindering our efforts to engage or include others.

In organisations this can lead to overly homogenous cultures that lack new ideas or hinder collaboration across different workgroups and teams. At worst it can result in cronyism, exclusion or even bullying of minority groups or individuals.

Minimising bias to maximise diversity

Here are three ways you can reduce the impact of unconscious bias at work and build a culture of diversity and inclusion.

1. Make it conscious.

One of the things I often look for when coming into an organisation or speaking to a new audience is the images people use to communicate messages about their culture.

You would be surprised how many times I have given feedback that a PowerPoint Presentation to promote a diversity or leadership initiative predominantly features stock photos of white faces. The images seem so familiar that people somehow don’t notice until it is pointed out!

Start by observing the unconscious biases in your workplace. (You might like to identify some of your hidden biases now by taking the Harvard IAT test).

Challenge stereotypes and check assumptions in yourself and your team. Open the discussion up to people outside your group to find out where they observe biases you miss.

2. Stop perpetuating bias.

The brain likes to chunk information in convenient ways to make it easier to remember and communicate. This can make us prone to generalising about people.

An example is the way we categorise people of different age groups. We tend to talk about boomers, millennials, generation Y or X in generalities. Yet these may not hold true when you consider the diverse experiences, backgrounds, talents and aspirations that make up the whole person.

Consider some of the ways you may be unconsciously perpetuating bias at work. Are you putting people into convenient boxes based on age, personality or type? Are biases in your policies and proceedures undermining efforts to foster diversity and inclusion?

If your workplace culture habitually uses stereotypical images or messages, choose images that counter them.

3. Make conscious connections.

Brains like people like us. As social animals we are geared to make connections with people we perceive as similar.

With similarity comes the ability to better infer what someone may be thinking or feeling. If you can find something in common with a new team member, you are more likely to empathise and connect with them, which in turn ensures you converse and build a relationship, leading to more cooperation and teamwork. On the other hand, if you perceive a person as significantly different, it may be harder to find common ground and you can be less likely to make an effort to get to know them.

Make a conscious effort to identify commonalities with the people you meet and work with. Look for ways to bypass common stereotypes or your own default assumptions.

Look beyond your own social circle or working group to make new or unexpected connections. Ask questions and be curious!

Download your free white paper on Diversity in the Boardroom. This white paper unpacks some of the key issues affecting boardroom diversity to help boards select, support and leverage a wider range of talent and ideas. It brings together the latest research on boards with approaches from neuroscience, emotional intelligence and positive psychology.