In this article, we break down the 6 types of unconscious bias and how to manage them. First, let’s begin by understanding:
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious biases are the biases that everyone has, that live in the dark recesses of the human brain. These biases are grown in each individual and can greatly influence day-to-day decision-making at home and at work.
There are different types of biases, and most importantly, it must be remembered that biases are not limited to just race or gender biases. The subject of unconscious bias is detailed and needs to be fully understood. Unconscious biases are collected over a lifetime and often affect decision-making, especially at the moment that a snap decision needs to be made.
“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
How does it work?
Unconscious biases are deeply rooted in the human brain. The brain is constantly collecting data and categorises it. One of the categories that is automatically made is between good and bad. Think about the caveman, who had to judge between a good situation and a bad situation, at a moment’s notice. As humans have evolved, this type of decision-making has been engrained in us.
Today, these assumptions or biases are often the results of social conditioning, life experiences. Some researchers believe that these biases often began in early childhood. These judgments or biases can affect both our personal and work lives by hindering our decision-making. In the business world, unconscious biases can affect an organisation from the top executive to the last hired employee.
What triggers the type of decisions we make so often every day? In a word: history. Here is a partial list of experiences that may play into the development of our unconscious biases:
• Past experience.
• The environment in which a child is raised.
• The culture in which a child is raised.
• Educational systems.
This list does not include all the ways data and information have been absorbed throughout our lives; but shapes the biases we have developed, affecting most of the decisions we make.
It is important to look at how unconscious bias impacts how we engage with others. For instance, a hiring manager may look at hundreds of resumes for one open position; they must decide simply by looking at the information provided who to interview. Often, based on an applicant’s skill set, work ethics, name, degree, or affiliation, unconscious bias will have an effect on the interview/hiring process. Hiring practices based on unconscious bias may result in a workplace that is narrow-minded, lacking diversity, and likely lacking creative and innovative new ideas. The work culture in organisations that allows bias to influence business can be negative and toxic. As a result, the workforce is aware of the lack of diversity and forward movement and may soon move on to healthier companies.
Types of unconscious bias
Doctor Phil, the television doctor often says, “We can’t fix what we don’t admit.” Problems that are hidden or not identified cannot be productively changed and biases work the same way. Different biases in different situations must first be identified. Only then can the error in judgment or thinking be identified and changed.
There are many different types of biases that a person can possess. Unconscious biases can be based on a wide variety of attributes that are sourced from many different experiences. Some biases arise from judging people’s appearances whilst some are derived from preconceived notions, and others are borne of logical fallacies. Besides that, bias exists in gender, age, name, beauty, contrast, authority, overconfidence, perception, illusory, recency, and more.
1. Affinity Bias
Affinity bias is also known as similarity bias and refers to the tendency to favour people who share similar interests, backgrounds, and experiences. We tend to feel more comfortable around people who are like us.
As a result, this type of bias can cause a team to become stagnant. There are limited new ideas, new approaches, etc. because everyone is the same. In addition, it can cause a person to gravitate more towards people who share their interests, reside in the same neighbourhood, or attend the same school. Thus, creates a group of people whose thinking and working styles are practically identical. Over time, the affinity bias in hiring can hamper a company’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
While eliminating affinity bias entirely may not be possible, there are ways to reduce its effects:
• Create a diverse hiring panel: Different people with varying perspectives and interests that conduct interviews can help reduce the affinity bias of one individual.
• Go beyond hiring for “culture fit”: The more hiring managers have in common with candidates, the more likely they are to evaluate them as a good “culture fit.” However, the term “culture fit” is vague, and it can mean different things to different people. To assess candidates fairly, use specific language and examples when sharing feedback about them. For instance, describe how well they embody company values or align with company missions.
• Consider using a profiling tool to assess a candidate’s job fit.
2. Halo Effect Bias
The halo effect, a term coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920s, occurs when we develop an overall positive impression of someone because of one of their qualities or traits. This effect may lead us to inadvertently put people on a pedestal since we’re constructing an image of a person based on limited information.
A good example of the halo effect bias is when an employer only hires graduates from specific schools because the employer assumes that only those graduates are qualified to work in the organisation. The truth is that graduates from other schools, public universities, and colleges, are sometimes more qualified to perform the job. Often, the life experience necessary to be successful may not be learned at a prestigious institution.
By focusing too much on one positive trait, we may overlook negative behaviour that could end up harming the company. For example, if a candidate was fired for misconduct in a previous job.
Try out these interviewing strategies to reduce the halo effect:
• Conduct multiple interviews: Set up several rounds of interviews for candidates with different levels of management. That way, a candidate can be evaluated from various perspectives.
• Diversify your interview team: Getting someone from another team to interview the candidate may help since they’ll have less reason to “halo” them as they won’t be working with them directly.
3. Horns Effect
The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. This bias causes us to have a negative impression of someone based on one trait or experience. Putting too much weight on a single trait or interaction with someone can lead to inaccurate and unfair judgments of their character.
Everyone can remember the kid in class that was judged because of his name. Before the teacher started the first day of class, he anticipated trouble. This kid’s dad was a problem, his brother was a problem, etc. Because of this, the teacher is on guard. This is a bias; unfair to this child. The same thing goes on in businesses today; a candidate’s reputation may precede them, resulting in missed opportunities. If left unchecked, the horns effect can damage the unity and trust between team members.
In order to reduce the horns effect when interacting with others, try to:
• Challenge your first impressions: Take the time to get to know someone so you can develop a more concrete impression of that person as a whole.
• Make judgments based on evidence: Ask yourself how you developed your first impression of someone and find evidence to support or refute that impression based on additional interactions.
4. Anchor Bias
Anchor bias is judging another person before knowing the facts, forming an opinion before having all of the information. This bias occurs when we overly rely on the first piece of information we receive as an anchor to base our decision-making upon. This causes us to see things from a narrow perspective.
An example may be the person that gets to the parking space first then a second car appears and takes the parking spot. The person that was waiting assumes that this second person is rude and impolite, whereas they may have an elderly or ill person waiting for a prescription from the pharmacy.
Anchor bias was first studied in the 50’s and 60’s; where researchers determined that often people judge others on their actions. Most attribute these actions to the other person’s personality and do not take into account the particular situation or environment. Take for example a grumpy customer: Is that customer grumpy because of a previous negative encounter with the staff? Or is their mood based on the fact that they recently suffered a loss in the family? Did their car get into an accident? Was their order wrong for the second time? Due to one of these possible factors, this customer may usually be very friendly but is now labeled as “grumpy”.
Instead of relying on one piece of information to make a decision, it is important to look at the whole picture. It takes time to make a thoughtful decision.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
• Conduct thorough research: The first option may not always be the best one. Explore various possible options and their pros and cons before deciding.
• Brainstorm with your team: Discussing a given decision with your teammates can help reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a plan.
5. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and use information that confirms one’s views and expectations. In other words, cherry-picking information to validate certain points. This affects our ability to think critically and objectively, which can lead to skewed interpretations of information and overlooking information with opposing views.
For example, a product developer comes up with a product idea for the athletic market. Although market research shows little interest in the product, they try to validate the idea by reaching out to athlete friends who they know will support the idea.
Although there’s gratification in validating a current idea, it’s important to consider the potential consequences of following through with the idea.
Some ways to reduce confirmation bias are:
• Gather multiple sources: Whenever you’re testing a hypothesis or conducting research, gather information from a wide variety of sources to get a balanced perspective.
• Standardise interview questions: When recruiting new talent, come up with a list of standard interview questions to prevent asking off-topic or pointed questions that may or may not confirm your beliefs about a candidate.
6. Status Quo Bias
This bias describes our preference for the way things are or for things to remain as they are, which can result in resistance to change. Following the status quo is a safe option and takes less effort, but it also results in becoming stagnant. As the business landscape continues to shift, change is necessary for business longevity and innovation.
An example of the status quo bias in a company, is continuing to hire team members from the same demographic group, making no effort to move forward with diversity goals. By repeatedly engaging in the same hiring practices, you may miss out on great candidates who can bring fresh ideas and perspectives to your company.
You can challenge the status quo with the following actions:
• Use the framing effect: We often follow the status quo to avoid a loss, which we place greater weight on compared to gains. The framing effect involves looking at the default option as a loss to encourage exploring alternative options as gains.
• Encourage outside-the-box thinking: Create an environment that celebrates creativity and innovation. Adapt an open mindset to change so that your team can continue to push the status quo.
As these examples show, unconscious biases can hinder decision-making, impact team dynamics and leadership styles, and limit company diversity. This, in turn, can reduce equal opportunities for team members and job applicants. Tackling unconscious biases can help address these issues, as well as improve company diversity.
Increased company diversity can bring additional benefits such as:
• Attracting diverse talent through inclusive hiring practices: By implementing inclusive recruitment strategies, companies are able to reach out to a wider talent pool. Job seekers would also be more likely to apply to companies that prioritise diversity.
• Making fair and more efficient business decisions: Inclusive teams can make better business decisions up to 87% of the time. These business decisions can help improve a company’s performance and revenue.
• Increasing innovation: Diverse teams can bring a variety of fresh ideas to the table, allowing teams to come up with creative solutions that can drive sales. For example, a study by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with diverse management teams bring 19% higher innovation revenue.
• Encouraging higher employee engagement: Deloitte research showed that company diversity is directly related to employee engagement. Higher employee engagement can lead to higher job satisfaction, which in turn, can lower the turnover rate.
• Boosting company productivity: University research found that tech firms with diverse management teams have 1.32 times higher levels of productivity. Increased productivity can lead to more efficient project management and implementation.
• Increasing company profitability: Teams that have solid problem-solving and decision-making skills can bring a competitive advantage to a company. For example, a McKinsey study found that gender-diverse companies were 21% more likely to gain above-average profitability.
Be conscious of your unconscious biases
The good news: Once you’re aware of your unconscious biases, you can take steps to mitigate their effects. By taking micro-steps such as revamping your interview questions template and encouraging cross-team collaboration, you are working towards a more diverse and inclusive workplace environment for you and your team.
Learn more about unconscious bias from the expert and author
Sign up for our free webinar: Unconscious Bias in the Workplace that is happening on 24th March 2022, 12:30-1:30PM (MYT) via Zoom, and catch Bill in action. Limited seats available, click here to register, and here for more information.
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About the Author
Bill is a qualified trainer with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – UK (CIPD) and has a wealth of experience in creating and delivering training programs globally. He is qualified in human development technologies such as NLP, Brain Gym, Improv Techniques, and more.
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