Breakable bias

As far as what goes on in our heads is concerned, we’re all biased, all of the time. It’s impossible not to be: upbringing, family, society, culture, TV, newspapers, school friends… by the time we’re adults we’ve been exposed to (and absorbed) a wide range of unconscious takes on the world. They’re not necessarily true (rarely, in fact) and they’re not necessarily helpful, but we have them and they impact on our daily lives constantly.

In fact, neuroscientists believe that more than 99% of the decisions we make and the actions we take are outside our conscious awareness. Most of the time we’re operating on a kind of autopilot programmed with biases, preferences and assumptions. The question is, how do our biases impact at work, and what can we do about that?

Bias in the workplace

While our unconscious biases may make for rapid decision-making (good!) they also mean we are naturally inclined to make assumptions and ignore factors and issues that we don’t view as important (bad!) – in decisions as in any activity, there’s a potential balance between speed and quality!

In the workplace, unmanaged bias and assumptions can impact on recruitment, promotions, teamworking, and customer service – often resulting in irrelevant factors, such as stereotypes around ethnicity, gender, and age, etc. affecting decisions and actions. The result is often a lack of innovative thinking (innovation tends to be conscious) and less diversity (or, where there is diversity, those perceived as ‘different’ can be excluded).

It’s important to note that unconscious bias is, by its nature, unintentional. However, it’s still unfair. And it’s still not good for business.

Types of bias

So, what kinds of bias and potential unfairness might be lurking within our psyches?

  • Affinity bias – Like likes like. Put another, we are often biased in favour of people who seem similar to ourselves. Having something in common makes for ease and familiarity.
  • Attribution bias – When something goes well, we take credit for it, it’s down to us. When something goes wrong, it’s due to external factors, it’s someone/thing else’s fault. The twist is, we tend to view other people’s achievements and failures in the opposite light.
  • Beauty bias – It’s all about looks. People who are attractive (according to societal, media or individual standards) are given more opportunities to succeed and, if they fail, are held to account less.
  • Confirmation bias – We see what we want to see. When we have an opinion, any evidence that disputes that opinion is more likely to be ignored, whereas anything that confirms it will tend to be accepted. Cherry-picking.
  • Conformity bias – Peer pressure. However important our individuality, most of us like to fit in. If the wind is blowing one way, it takes a bold person (and a conscious decision) to put forward a dissenting view.
  • Contrast effect – We tend to judge in relative terms, comparing people (and things) to make up our minds. As opposed to making an objective assessment of the person based purely on their individual characteristics and merits.
  • Gender bias – There’s no shortage of gender stereotypes and going along with assumptions about ‘male jobs’ and ‘female jobs’ is another form of bias resulting in discrimination.
  • Halo and horns – When we judge another on the basis of a single event, action or experience. When that experience is good, we overlook the person’s more negative aspects (the halo effect) and vice versa, a bad experience can lead to us ignoring a person’s positive qualities (the horns effect).

What’s probably obvious about the above list is pretty much any form of workplace unfairness or discrimination can probably be attributed to one unconscious bias or another (not ruling out more conscious and deliberate maltreatment, of course, but at root there’s likely to be an unconscious bias of some type).

How to combat unconscious bias in the workplace? There are potentially limitless answers to that question but a key step is self-awareness – bringing the unconscious biases out into the conscious light. For starters:

  • Understand how unconscious bias works and appreciate the importance of doing so.
  • Know your own hidden preferences, assumptions and biases.
  • Adopt a deliberately critical and analytic approach to decision-making.
  • Raise your awareness of the dangers and potential impacts of bias and prejudice on other people.


If you’re interested in further exploring unconscious bias and how it can undermine a workplace, give us a call on 01582 463462; we’re here to help.

Categories: HR

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