By Teresa Boughey – June 2019
Imagine being in the office and hearing: “This is going to be a fantastic candidate – they’ve got a first degree from a very prestigious educational establishment.” Or how about “Oh, they don’t look like our normal customers?” Maybe you see yourself walking through the corridors of your workplace and catch this little nugget from a conference room: “I just knew from the moment I saw the shiny shoes and sharp suit, that’s what a partner looks like.” What about someone saying: “I’m not sure about her, she looks, well, different in some way. What do you think?”
However, you don’t need to imagine overhearing sentences like the ones above as these are conversations that take place every day. Conversations which are infused in some way with an unconscious bias as they’re likely to influence our perception, which in turn affects our judgement and decision making.
The reality is that biases do exist and most don’t come from a place of bad intent. In short, our brains make quick judgements and assessments of others without even being aware of it. Our personal experience, background, education and cultural environment are often contributory factors to the deep-seated prejudices that we hold.
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by the late Harvard professor Chris Argyris provides a useful framework to help recognise that people can look at the same set of evidence yet draw very different conclusions. This is because our life experiences and our environment to name but a few, all serve as filters to which we view our version of the world around us and upon which we make our decisions. Our judgements and assessments are likely to be influenced by our feelings as well as our rational thought processes. This might include how we react when we see how someone looks,which is known as beauty bias; how well we listen to what others are saying to back up any first impressions, which is known as confirmation bias; or the way in which we align ourselves with someone who we feel is the same as us, otherwise known as affinity bias. We could also sway or influence the views and opinions of others to match our own in order to fit in, which is called conformity bias.
The important thing to remember however is that it’s called unconscious bias for a reason. Even those who are highly attuned to their thoughts and beliefs may experience a lapse or have a negative opinion towards others. What’s important however is to help everyone to understand the impact these biases have on our own lives as well as the lives of others.
Take the visually impaired candidate who applied for the role of finance director. An immediate response by the recruiter upon meeting this candidate could have been to dismiss the candidate having made a value judgement that they were unable to carry out the required duties. However, after learning more about the wealth of experience the candidate had as well as understanding the reasonable adjustments required, this individual was duly appointed and is an asset to the leadership team.
The perceptions we have of others, whether we’re aware of it or not, affect our judgements and decision making. Therefore, whatever your starting point in your inclusion journey is, it’s important to acknowledge that unconscious bias exist – they’ve been forming in people’s brains for years. Unconscious bias training has a role to play but only as part of a holistic approach. Enable individuals to work alongside a diverse range of people as equals. Educate people about stereotypes and highlight when they might occur in the workplace. Provide safe spaces for people to have open conversations and share their experiences.
Remember, our brains make quick judgements and assessments of others based on our biases, without us even being aware of it – you’ll have done that whilst reading this article.