How is your unconscious bias influencing the way you make decisions?

Louise Ladbrooke
Leadership Expert | innovate2succeed
2nd November 2017

I speak with a Welsh accent and in the time it’s taken to read this, you’ve already formed a judgment of me. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your brain has made a snap judgement of me based on what you associate with being Welsh - this is your unconscious bias. 

You’ve just made an accidental discrimination which could be positive or negative but is unique to you. If you take a moment to rationalise, you’ll readily accept that it will take a lot more information about me to discover the accuracy of your initial thoughts. So why do we jump to conclusions and form opinions based on such little information?

What is unconscious bias, why do we have it and how much influence does it have on our decision making at work? How does it affect our leadership abilities? Could we be unconsciously damaging our businesses in the recruiting and appraising decisions that we make?

You’re not alone

It’s the human condition, it’s in all of us. No matter how generous our intentions or how liberal-minded we think ourselves to be, there’s a super fast thought process in our brains that expresses implicit bias. 

Rarely discussed, it’s generally seen as a darker side of our personalities, the small-minded, bigoted, racist, sexist, ageist dinosaur that somehow won’t get left behind. In his book, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Nelson Mandela, the one man synonymous worldwide with the fight for equality and inclusion, admits that his first reaction to boarding a plane and seeing a black pilot was to panic at the pilot’s ability. 

It happens to the best of us.

We jump to conclusions in an instant

A quick search on the number of decisions we make a day suggests 35,000. 

That’s a huge and exhausting demand, so to simplify our lives our brains have found a way to get rid of some without even realising it; Obama famously wore only blue or grey suits throughout his presidency. 

Unthinkingly we categorise and make snap judgements; at best it keeps us safe from potential threats, at worst we can unconsciously decide a person’s ability to do a job without any concrete evidence.

Our unconscious bias is unique to us 

Just as we’re all different on the outside so our inside thoughts are completely unique. We all know that children are sponges and that’s where it started for all of us, soaking up the ‘mindset’ of our childhood society. 

A lifetime of different experiences has woven our own complex understanding of the world which acts as a filter through which all new information passes. Rest assured that whatever your unconscious bias is of Welsh people, we’ve got ours on what it means to be Welsh!

Our mindsets are not set in stone

The more we open our minds to new experiences so we prove to ourselves that the old rules and beliefs do not apply. 

Mandela had never before seen a black airline pilot, it was outside of his experience. It obviously did not take long for his logical mind to kick in and reason that he was perfectly safe. The more we break away from our cultural stereotyping and influences, the more we can break past the mindsets that served us in our youth and embrace a new one more suitable for the current age.

We can rise above them

Once we’re aware of how our unconscious bias thought processes work, we can ‘catch ourselves’ in the moment. Practice by listening to your inner voice when you observe a complete stranger. 

Listen to your thoughts as you observe someone who you know absolutely nothing about, you’ll be surprised at how much of an opinion you have instantly formed. Becoming aware of our thoughts and exposing the false assumptions you've made, enables us to release their power over our decisions. 

Interestingly, we can start a vicious mental circle of judging ourselves for the judgements that we’ve made of others. Let them go. Become aware of them, acknowledge them and let them go. Pursuing them is the road to nowhere.

We’ve all heard that to assume is to make an ‘ass of u and me’ but little do we realise just how much we’re making assumptions all day long? 

A leader who is unaware of their unconscious bias is leading a team with unwitting discrimination. Unknowingly, the leader is creating an unpredictable work environment leading to mistrust, tension, a lowering of morale and job satisfaction, and increased conflict at work resulting in absenteeism and an increase in sick days taken.

Next time you’re making a people based decision at work become mindful of your unconscious bias, acknowledge it then get on with the job of being the leader you were born to be.

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