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Unconscious Bias: a work reality that requires attention and action

You might have heard about the Starbucks incident where 2 African American men were arrested on false suspicion. It was a clear case of racial bias on the part of the store manager and the police personnel. It brought a lot of outrage over the coffee brand and dented its image.

Here is another example: Google has long celebrated the birthdays of famous leaders and innovators on its homepage with signature Doodles, and in 2014 a blogger pointed out that 77% of the previous year's doodles were dedicated to Men. The Doodle team, split in gender, was shocked by the breakdown and then began tracking the diversity of their commemorations.

There are many such instances that point out how an unconscious bias affects our decision-making and perception of people at the workplace. Gender diversity becoming a big focus area for organizations over the last few years has shed more light on this subject.

And it is not just the visible biases that are out there, like, race, gender, physical ability, ethnicity, and age. There are others that are operating at an unconscious level that we have developed during our growing years through experiences and environmental conditioning. So, we may have certain biases towards a certain type of people which we may not be aware of.

It is critical that unconscious bias at work is addressed by building awareness and cultivating self-reflection to gauge and control these biases.

4 Most common biases at work are:

1. Authority Bias

We tend to give undue credit to authority or influential figures. It is quite natural to follow someone who we consider important without objectively judging their opinion. This had over the years taken the form of the famous expression, "Boss is always right".

It is one of the most common biases and we need to weigh it in properly before letting it influence our decisions unconsciously.

2. Confirmation Bias

In other words, We look for what we want to look for. We tend to look for or recall things that favor our existing beliefs and judgments, rather than 

The way to beat it is to play the devil's advocate to yourself. Before you proceed, try to see the other side of each supporting argument and assess how it affects your decisions.

3. Self-serving Bias

This bias is evident if you think when you succeed, it is because of your own efforts. And when you fail it is because of other people or circumstances. We tend to attribute positive outcomes to our doing and negative outcomes to others' doing.

It is important to recognize both internal and external factors are behind one's success and failure.

4. Negativity Bias

We have a natural inclination to focus on the negative. This is a survival instinct passed down through the hunter-gatherer generations that helped us survive in the wild. However, in current times this bias may tend to occupy more of our mind and thinking than to serve us real purpose.

Positivity is a choice and comes with effort till the time it becomes a habit. And if you practice is it could help you look at situations positively. Even if not completely, try to find a balance between both so that you can evaluate circumstances in a more holistic way.

How can one overcome these biases?

1. Recognize

It is going to take conscious effort to recognize one's biases. Build awareness when you interact with others and identify what could be at play as a bias.

2. Override

Recognition is half the job done as you have turned the unconscious to conscious. Once that happens you can override the bias by removing it from your decision-making process. You can also override its effect on relationships by building familiarity with the other person.

3. Help others

It ideally must not stop with you. We need to help others around us to deal with their biases so that we can create a more inclusive environment and cultures, whether at workplaces or in societies.

And how are organizations doing it?

Starbucks tried to address it through training on the racial bias that covered almost all of its employees spread across the U.S. (Link).

Google has implemented an organization-wide training on the unconscious bias which they titled re:work and over a period of time it has come to form a great training resource, which is available for all.

It is a really great set of information and tools that could help you implement your strategy around gender diversity and unconscious bias. Here is a video where Google shares how they did it:

To find out what your unconscious biases are, or help your colleagues do it, nominate yourself for a training workshop or even take your whole team for one.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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