You have probably heard of Unconscious Bias before. Other Blogs or articles, maybe a friend or colleague mentioned it. Maybe you have been accused of being biased towards something. Is it just another trend that consultants use to gain more work? No matter what your thoughts are around Unconscious Bias, it is a real thing. More importantly, it is holding you or your team back from achieving what you really want.
A Cognitive Bias is the outcome of mental shortcuts the brain naturally uses in order to simplify and make sense of the world around us. These shortcuts are known as heuristics, and the result of these heuristics is the bias. These heuristics help us make decisions very quickly and easily. Over tens of thousands of years, our brains have evolved to be as efficient as possible. Energy was the most important commodity to the human body for millennia. Food was scarce and so energy conservation equalled survival. Rapidly deciding what to do in the event of stumbling upon a predator or other human was also critical to survival.
Today our world is vastly different to even a few thousand years ago, yet our brain has changed very little. Now, even though we can pop down the shops at any time of the day for a quick energy hit, our brain still operates as if tomorrow there will be a famine. With conscious thinking being one of the least energy efficient tasks in the body, the brain takes many shortcuts to reduce energy consumption.
Examples of how Unconscious Bias appears in your workplace and what you can do about it.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
Have you ever had a bad night’s sleep, and come into work a little fuzzy? You make a few more simple errors than usual, and tend to take longer to get things done. You know why you’re being a bit slow, and write it off as a bad day. Next week you observe a colleague being slow and making errors, you don’t have the knowledge of why and just assume they are slow and useless. This is known as the Fundamental Attribution error, where you judge others on their character and actions, but yourself on the situation and intentions.
The Curse of Knowledge Bias
We think people often “just know” what we know. You’ve had a bad night with the baby waking, and believe people will be forgiving of your snappy responses and silly mistakes. But they aren’t. Just as you’ve been reading all the latest articles on your favourite topic, and when you begin raving about the new technology in the meeting you are confused by all the blank looks from everyone. You may even interpret this as them being dismissive, or objectionable, and get defensive. The Curse of Knowledge bias causes many arguments and confusion in the workplace. Things make sense to us but not to others, and it is hard to remember things once didn’t make sense to us either. We build complex networks of understanding and forget how intricate our path to knowledge and understanding was.
The Group Think Bias
Perhaps your team has decided to go down a particular path and a few weeks or months later you wonder how that decision was made, as now it seems absurd. It’s possible the Group think Bias has taken effect. Where social dynamics override the best decisions. Often the most confident or first voice will determine the direction of discussion, and the same outcomes occur. Arguments are avoided for the sake of harmony, or more accurately, the easiest (and energy efficient) option. Some leaders enjoy this situation, as they often get their own way. This only produces a short-term gain. Longer-term fresh ideas are stifled and the team suffers from stagnation or misdirection.
The Halo Effect
Often contributing to this is another bias, the Halo effect. Ever worked with someone who could do no wrong? They always seem to be allocated the choice jobs, and get lucky more often with not. The boss listens to their idea while you are ignored. Even if something goes wrong, they seem to be Teflon when it comes to consequences. Our judgements are associative and automatic, and we often favour those who have had good results in the past but might not be the best person for the current job.
Expanding on this is the In-group Bias we can fall into easily. You may have referred to it as “The Purple Circle” or “Boys Club”. Call it what you will, it is a very common bias where the people who are most like us or belong to our group are favoured over others who are not. Remember this is an Unconscious bias, but sadly can be a conscious one as well. More often though we presume that we are fair and impartial, but the truth is we automatically favour those who are most like us, because, after all, we are pretty awesome or have good reason why we made a mistake (uh –oh, the Fundamental Attribution error again!). So people like us or like the same things as us must be just as awesome, right?
I’ve described a few common situations where Unconscious Bias can appear in the workplace, using five common Cognitive Biases. The bad news is researchers have identified more than 180 different biases present in modern humans. This doesn’t mean we all have 180; I might have 31 different biases, you may have 23. The person next to you has 76… probably. This is a good thing though. It means the bigger the group the likelihood of bias overlap reduces. Meaning there is a good chance a few people will be able to see things more objectively within the team. If you choose to listen.
This will only have a positive effect if people consider whether they might have a bias. Most do not. The brain is very happy with the current status quo, where the heuristic (mental shortcut) works out okay the majority of the time, and it’s not worth the extra energy to actually think about something. Fortunately, in our modern world energy is readily available, so we can and should think a little more about things.
The problem with biases is they are very difficult to identify yourself. I tell people they are like gravity. You cannot see it, but you can see the effects. Look for patterns that occur because of the same decisions you make all the time. Importantly, listen to feedback from your colleagues. Really. Just listen. Many people may have given up telling you, but hopefully a few still point out how you always (or never) do something. It is usually the person you have the least in common, or rarely talk with. Be curious, look for evidence and accept the fact you will have biases. We all do.There is still research going on about Cognitive biases, and you can participate by completing an anonymous survey that may help identify your own biases. You may not always like the result, but you will be better informed. You can find it at; https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/australia/takeatest.html
To learn more, why not attend our 1 day course, Unconscious Bias