By: Catherine Plano
Our “unconscious bias” shapes much of what we do – from the foods we love to the people we connect with. Understanding its influence and its impact on our thoughts is the key to making good decisions.
Unconscious bias comes from our innate instinct to label people using easily observed criteria such as age, gender, social status and job title. The brain likes to make sense of the world around it, so it developed a system of ‘categories’ that help it to organise what it processes. Once we have categorised them, we then automatically assign presumed traits to anyone we unconsciously put in these groups.
A lot of us don’t like to admit that we do this, but we do. It’s simply the mechanics of the human brain – something we have little control over. What we do have control over, however, is how much influence we let these categories and presumptions affect what we say, what we think and how we behave.
A perfect example of this is when we see people make sweeping generalisations about situations, circumstances and people. While clustering gives us a common definition and is useful for communicating with others, it can be detrimental because we often bundle things without challenging the associated in-built stereotypes that goes with them.
How do we become conscious of our unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is a learned behaviour. Most of the time, these unconscious biases are things we’ve picked up from our parents, our upbringing, our education, the information we read, the news we see… It is virtually impossible to eliminate our unconscious bias. However, there are things that we can do to alleviate the impact it has on our thinking and decision making. The first step is to accept and realise that we all have an unconscious bias. The second step is to to challenge ourselves and the reasons why we choose one thing over another, helping us make decisions more consciously.
Leaders and Unconscious Bias
Effective leaders must learn to be competent at putting aside unconscious bias. They need to be able to make impartial decisions and rational judgments that impact the wellbeing of others from employees to customers, clients, and the wider communities in which the company operates.
Leaders should be curious. They should have a desire to know what their individual bias is, where it comes from, and when it activates.
When we as humans consciously pay attention to areas of bias, we become more conscious of our decision making process.
If we do not do that as leaders, how can we possibly appoint, develop and promote the best people? How can we make the most equitable decisions? How can we ensure that we are running a business or an organisation appropriately if we are not aware of the forces that dominate the choices we make?
We Need to Unlearn and Relearn
Try this next time you make a big decision. Ask yourself: how do I feel?
Are my feelings connected with this individual? Is this something I see in myself?
Most of the time, we make decisions based on familiarity. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on what the associated familiarity is.
This can be as simple as a name. If, as a child, you had a bully on your street named “Joe,” then you might find yourself thinking that every “Joe” you meet is, by default, a bully. Due to your unconscious bias, you judge before you really give yourself a chance to get to know them. And, because your judgement is already clouded, you might even go looking for signs to justify your thinking.
If you get into the habit of challenging your thinking, then you’ll make better, more impartial decisions.
The benefit is twofold. By stepping into the role of the observer, we allow ourselves time and space to spend more cognitive resources on other tasks.
Challenge Your Unconscious Bias
What’s more, when you challenge your unconscious bias, you bring about a strong accountability for your thought-processes, your actions, and your decisions.
Bias is as natural as breathing. It’s only through practice and continually working to shift your mindset that you can create true transformation.
No matter how unbiased we think we are, we all have unconscious opinions about people. However, the more we open ourselves to others who are different from ourselves, the more we gain new insights that challenge our old entrenched unconscious biases.
You Can Expect What You Inspect
Conscious awareness and unconscious processing occur at different places in our brains, often simultaneously. Think of how many things we do without having to think about them – walking, blinking, breathing. These are automatic behaviours.
Because the brain is able to processes incoming information and presents it to us in less than half a second, it creates the illusion that what we are experiencing is happening right now and that we are making decisions based on our conscious thought process.
That is why it is extremely important to question your assumptions and the possible influences of past experiences and unconscious bias on your feelings and beliefs.
Mind, brain, and body are all connected. Movement and physical activity stimulate and drive new learning and growth of the pre-frontal lobe (neuroplasticity). Additionally, deprivation has been shown to impair flexible thinking and decision making.
Learning can also be enhanced and hindered by environmental conditions. So check in with your environment. Keep in mind, your brain has a short attention span; it needs repetition and multiple channels processing for deeper learning to occur. Our brains are observant to a constantly changing environment, so we learn better in brief intervals. Therefore, stay curious to explore the new, and continue to shift your focus of attention to the conscious bias you want to create for yourself.
You know what they say: practice makes progress, and eventually makes perfect!
Catherine Plano is an International Keynote Speaker and Executive Coach, Leadership Development Professional, Queen of Transformation, a Creative Soul Adventurer, a Theorist and Provocateur of Change, and an Agent of Philosophy.
Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.