Our brains can consciously process dozens of pieces of information every second; simultaneously, we are unconsciously processing thousands more in the background. To keep up with all stimuli around us, we create mental shortcuts to make decision-making easier. When this happens, unconscious bias can creep in.

No matter how uncomfortable it feels to acknowledge it, we know that unconscious biases still influence many of our decisions.

It is important to remember that unconscious bias often happens outside of our processing. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about groups that we form outside of our conscious awareness. It occurs automatically and is triggered by the brain making a quick judgment.

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

Biases can make living and working in our increasingly diverse and globally connected environments challenging. They can also blind us to the value that diversity can bring to our workplaces and communities, limiting individual and team growth opportunities.

The Effects of Bias

  • Talented people are excluded from your workforce
  • Inequality in opportunity for development and career progression
  • Decisions are impaired if diverse voices are not heard
  • The workplace culture is not demonstrating inclusive principles
  • Interactions between employees and clients are hindered
  • Reduced retention and innovation

Building a culture of diversity and inclusion often needs to start by understanding biases; this helps people to identify, promote, and support talented people who may not otherwise be on their radar.

Biases in the Brain

Our brains are prone to biases that can lead us to pre-judge a situation or person, playing into cultural stereotypes or assumptions.

For example, inbuilt mechanisms that enable our survival make us 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 usually 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.

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

“Deconstructing our unconscious bias takes consistent work. We can’t address it once and be done. We need to recognise these unwanted, deep-rooted beliefs and limit their influence on us. Then our actions will match our intentions.”

Sarah Fiarman, Unconscious Bias: When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

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

  1. Make the Unconscious – Conscious

We can start by having a conversation with our teams and practising awareness. Unconscious bias is part of being human, so let’s bring it to the table.

Start by observing the unconscious biases in yourself and your language.

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.

Get feedback from employees about hidden barriers they may experience within the organisation. Tailor training according to the findings.

  1. Examine Your Workplace

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 procedures undermining efforts to foster diversity and inclusion?

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

Consider how diversity aligns with your workplace values. Set some diversity and inclusion goals and be accountable.

  1. 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 infer better what someone may be thinking or feeling.

Look beyond your social circle or working group to make new or unexpected connections. Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions.  Be quicker to ask questions and be curious!

Make a conscious effort to identify commonalities with the people you meet and work colleagues. Look for ways to bypass common stereotypes or your default assumptions. Building relationships leads to more cooperation, teamwork and wellbeing – positive outcomes for all.

Ready for more learning?

To learn more about the Langley Group’s Positive HR Toolkit, click here. The Positive HR Toolkit gives leaders and HR professionals the solutions to implementing positive people practices in the workplace.  Built on research from Positive Psychology and neuroscience, the solutions provide simple and easy to use tools for every stage of the employee lifecycle.

To discover Langley Group’s Certified Trainer Programme – Leading with Emotional Intelligence, click here.  The course will provide you with the resources, knowledge, and practical tools to facilitate Langley Group’s Leading with Emotional Intelligence programme (LwEI) and the suite of shorter programmes focused on developing Emotional Intelligence.

To learn more, join Learn with Sue for eBooks on 7 Ways to Apply Positive Psychology, 10 Brain-Friendly Habits and How to Lead with the Brain at Work. Plus a range of tools to help yourself and others, including questionnaires, values cards, posters and more.