Why you should uncover your implicit biases (And yes, you do have them)

I have a friend who’s an eye surgeon. He received the top prize for Ophthalmology and Surgery – you know, one of those all-round overachievers who annoys the heck out of you by being a thoroughly nice bloke too. He’s Samoan. He regularly gets mistaken for an orderly in the hospital corridors. Despite him being incredibly good natured about this, he’s most definitely a victim of implicit (or unconscious) bias.

What is implicit bias?

It’s a simple concept that’s backed up by neuroscience.

Every moment of every day, our brain processes incredible amounts of information. Too much information for it to handle, in fact. So, to manage this tsunami of data, our brain takes shortcuts. These shortcuts, for the most part, are helpful. They mean we don’t have to “think” about most of the things we do. It’s kinda like being on autopilot. They help us to accomplish simple things without thinking about them, like walking across the room to open a door. But these shortcuts also show up with more complicated things, like in assessing a fellow human being.

Research shows that our brain makes decisions up to 10 seconds before we even realise its done so.   This suggests that most of our so-called “conscious” decisions are really, in fact, largely unconscious. And our brain can process situations quickly because it relies on what it already knows—or rather, what it thinks it knows.

Implicit bias happens when this automatic processing is influenced by stereotypes; therefore, when those stereotypes impact our actions and judgments. Implicit bias refers to the beliefs or attitudes that are activated automatically, involuntarily and without our awareness. And here’s something that will make you a bit squeamish: these hidden biases are different from the beliefs and attitudes that we are aware we hold. In fact, it’s possible for us to hold unconscious stereotypes that we consciously oppose!

Our implicit (or unconscious) biases form involuntarily from our experiences. They’re the result of what we’ve mostly been exposed to all our lives, including stereotypes in the media. Stereotypes reflect what we see and hear every day, not what we consciously believe about what we see and hear. These biases are reinforced on a daily basis without us knowing, or thinking consciously about them.

Nobody is exempt. But nobody wants to believe they’re part of the problem. When you think about stereotyping, your first reaction is probably “not me!” Most of us like to think of ourselves as egalitarian and unprejudiced. But implicit bias shapes us all. It’s a natural, universal method of cognitive processing.

Why is it important to uncover your implicit biases as a leader?

Implicit bias a pretty important concept to get your head around as a leader because it can be an insidious villain when it comes to your decision making. The trouble comes because implicit bias can lead us to behave in ways that are not in line with who we think we are, or who we want to be. And that’s not so hot if you’re aspiring to be a good leader.

Because we are, by definition, unaware of our automatic, unconscious beliefs and attitudes, we tend to believe we are acting in accordance with our conscious intentions, when in fact, our unconscious is in the driver’s seat. This is how it is possible for us to treat others unfairly, even when we believe it is the wrong thing to do.

I love what Mah-zarin Banaji, a Harvard researcher said about implicit bias:

Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organisation’s, best interests. But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.

Where does implicit bias show up?

People are subject to implicit bias based on many factors, including:

  • Sex and sexual identity
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Education level
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Even geographic location

We’re not necessarily talking about blatant aggressions. It’s more commonly about small, subtle, hidden biases that show up in our words and actions.

What are the implications for implicit bias in the workplace?

Implicit bias can have some pretty profound implications in the workplace. For starters, think of what it might mean when we make decisions on who gets a job, who gets disciplined or promoted, who we choose to develop, whose ideas we give consideration to, and how we treat different colleagues.

Implicit bias can therefore become an insidious presence affecting loyalty, commitment and performance. The challenge is that biases are often executed unwittingly – with neither the sender, nor the receiver, being actively conscious of the messages being sent.

Bias can contribute to hostile workplaces, bullying, and discrimination. It:

  • Marginalises and under-utilises talent
  • Impairs recruitment and retention
  • Erodes an individual’s performance
  • Stifles innovation and growth
  • Inhibits team work and collaboration
  • Adversely affects business growth
  • Damages the organisation’s brand

How do you address your implicit biases?

Here’s the good news: we can mitigate these biases. Acknowledging that you have implicit biases is an important first step to overcoming them.

  1. Start by accepting that we all have biases, including you. We need to stop pretending we don’t notice differences. We do. Every one of us, even if it’s unconscious.
  2. Get curious about uncovering yours. Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington created “Project Implicit” to develop Hidden Bias Tests—called Implicit Association Tests, (IATs) that measure implicit bias. Take them.
  3. Once you are clearer on what your implicit biases are, accept you’ve got them and then focus on working to overcome them. Increase contact with that particular group and actively seek to expose yourself to situations that actively counter your stereotypical views.
  4. Reduce your exposure to information that may bias you to that group when making an important decision. For example, resumes can have the names and other information that would give clues to the applicants’ gender, race, age, and other factors removed.
  5. Practice empathy. You can do this by trying to put yourself in another person’s shoes. How? Practice active listening, be openly and non-judgmentally curious and challenge your own assumptions about different groups as often as you can. Focus on the feelings that you have experienced that might be similar. This will deepen your emotional insight into the other person’s perspective.
  6. Examine your circle of influencers. Have a diverse group of people around your decision making table. Actively seek and listen to divergent opinions and incorporate different perspectives when co-creating solutions.
  7. Get uncomfortable. Be comfortable with that discomfort. Overcoming implicit bias isn’t easy; don’t expect a quick fix.  It’s a lifelong process that requires time and attention, but it’s worth it – especially if you are in a leadership role with more influence.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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