Published 01 September, 2020

Unconscious Bias: How do you find and fix it (5 minutes read)

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman takes us on a ground breaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. When deciding which resume to pursue, we weigh a few factors deliberately. But for hundreds of other factors, we must rely on intuitive judgement and we weigh these unconsciously.

In our earlier article on this topic we acknowledged that unconscious bias exists. It’s important to remember that most bias stereotypes do not come from a bad intent. Bias is something learned over many years. We just have to acknowledge their existence, how they affect what we do as leaders and actively work on ways to limit their impact in the workplace.

Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University who received a Nobel Prize for his work on memory, was once pressed to say how much of the mind works unconsciously; he gave an estimate of 80 to 90%. Combating our unconscious biases is hard, because they don't feel wrong; they feel right. But it's necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people.

How do you challenge unconscious bias at the workplace?

  1. Use inclusive language: Be mindful of the language we use and make sure it’s as inclusive as possible.
  2. Expose yourself to counterstereotyping imagery : Blindspot co-author Mahzarin Banaji came up with a simple and unique solution to combat some of her own “mindbugs:” She created a screensaver for her computer that displays images of a diverse array of humanity. She also favored images that represent counterstereotypes. Short bald men who are senior executives is one of her favorite counterstereotyping images.
  3. Consider your office furnishings: Environments can act like gatekeepers by preventing people who do not feel they fit into those environments from ever considering membership in the associated groups. Adding more feminine decor strengthened women’s associations with the organizations.
  4. Empower Mentors for Underrepresented Groups: This means that having even a few visible members of underrepresented groups on your team could have a compounding effect, if your organization can encourage and support mentoring relationships.
  5. Use Social Media to Amplify New Voices: Try being mindful of whose voices you share, amplify, validate and promote to others. We spend so much of our time on these social networks, and there’s so much we can do to right the wrongs we’ve seen in other media, through simple and small actions.
  6. Find Members Of Underrepresented Groups that you Admire: What if you could fight your brain’s unconscious bias simply by admiring others? When people are exposed to admired members of disadvantaged groups (African Americans, gays and lesbians, elderly, women), they express less implicit bias against these groups.
  7. Use your Imagination: counterprogram your brain: Possibly the simplest way of all to retrain your unconscious mind? Use your imagination.


No one is immune.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced."

James Baldwin

How to find unconscious bias and fix it

If no one is immune to bias, what can we do? The first step is to recognize it. It’s important that we move away from the label that who is biased is bad, and who is not biased is good. We’re all biased, and as soon as you start putting labels on people, bias becomes something  nasty, and nasty things we typically want to keep under the surface. But we need to get it into the open, because as soon as you have people, you have bias.” Some specific tools include:

  1. Personal Self Awareness : We ask people to substitute one person for another and ask themselves would I still feel the same way? Would I still respond the same way? Would I still have cast aside that resume?” Another check on bias is to correct it through experience
  1. Leadership Trials : By trialing new team leaders over a specified period of time, the business gained new technical insights, greater energy and input into the sector teams. This process also provided some relief to burned out team leaders. 
  1. Blended Teams: Build blended teams to increase awareness of different perspectives. Even though conceptually, people see a lot of benefit to creating blended teams, in reality people feel more comfortable teaming up with likeminded people. But, alike people may not be challenging themselves and each other. In blended teams, the composition of the group may increase awareness around unconscious bias.
  1. Watch Your Triggers: The theories of ego depletion and decision fatigue show how different forms of mental tiredness can lead to increased System 1 (automatic and thereby bias-prone) decision making. When we’re tired or hungry, our brains rely more on that unconscious, fast processing, which studies have shown is more prone to bias.
  1. Ongoing Training: Mickey Matthews, International Chairman at Stanton Chase acknowledges how the mind jumps to conclusions. Matthews says, “Twice a year all of our consultants meet, and the Diversity and Inclusion leaders organize trainings for our team to identify and overcome unconscious bias. These trainings include tests on making the individual aware of his or her biases. Identifying and recognizing these biases is the first step to overcoming them in our daily work, and we see this as vital to the success of Stanton Chase and our clients.
  1. Check Your Culture and Manage Change: If companies want to change the culture of an organization by hiring a diverse workforce, they have to include change management, otherwise that diverse workforce might not be successful and there might be retention issues in the end.
  1. Leverage technology: From initial screening in recruiting, real-life simulations in assessment, and “blind,” data-based performance review, advances in technology can help employers limit the impact of unconscious bias in their workplaces.
  1. Avoid unnecessary details while hiring: One example is “blinding” oneself from knowing an individual’s irrelevant demographic details when making a decision about them. Another example is learning to compensate for implicit preferences. For example, if you have an implicit preference for young people you can try to be friendlier toward elderly people.
  1. Utilize Search Firms and External Partners-While implementing the measures to limit unconscious bias is essential, it may not be enough. Hiring search consulting firms can help eliminate unconscious bias within an organization.Utilizing search firms can help organizations move away from familiar paths. Search firms and their consultants often lead by example and have an opportunity to challenge what clients think they need.The co-founder and managing director at MIX Diversity Developers Hayley Barnard says,“One thing search professionals can do is arm themselves with the data around profitability and diverse executive boards and leadership teams. There are significant research that will help clients understand the relationship between diversity in management and both innovation and profitability.”Search consultants are also uniquely positioned to show clients they do not have to trade top qualifications for diversity.

The Way Forward

We think it is best to conclude this article by quoting Daniel Kahneman again, from Thinking, Fast and Slow

"The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high."

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