Unconscious bias: what it means for individuals and organisations

Bias. For a small word, it has big implications for how we think and behave. And at first glance, the implications associated with bias are not favourable.

In itself, bias is not inherently bad. Most easily understood as a series of shortcuts, built up from our knowledge and experience, bias helps us to navigate everyday life with familiarity, ease and efficiency. The problem is not in bias. The question is rather: how can we ensure that our biases serve us and the organisations that we lead, rather than causing unintentional harm?

The learned nature of bias

Everybody has their own set of biases, and each of our biases is unique to us. We draw conclusions from what we know, have learned and experienced; these factors create a blueprint which we rely upon next time we’re faced with a similar scenario. Bias can be cognitive, emotional, relational and behavioural, providing us with an ‘autopilot’ in virtually all that we feel, think and do in life.

When bias moves from being a helpful shortcut to something harmful

Bias removes the need to ponder every option, instead allowing us to use our experience and decide quickly. Bias becomes problematic when those fast decisions have negative implications. By working on a set of predefined assumptions, and being unconscious of those assumptions, we may miss something in front of us or we may act in a way that is narrow-minded or exclusionary.

The difference between biases and how they manifest

There are two kinds of bias:

  • Conscious bias: this kind of bias can be articulated rationally. That means naming the said bias and explaining why it’s mine. This degree of awareness means I can temper the bias: if I believe that it may be viewed as prejudice, I can make my bias more palatable through how I present it.
  • Unconscious bias: this kind of bias is not easily articulated, either because we’ve lost touch with the rationale or how the bias manifests. While unconscious bias can’t be verbally explained it becomes apparent through emotion, communication, behaviour and relationships.

For organisations and individuals, raising awareness of bias and determining which are productive is a challenge.

The place of bias in Learning and Development initiatives

As with any activity which raises consciousness, asking individuals to become aware of their bias is a delicate process. Simply highlighting bias, particularly bias which has harmful rather than helpful potential, can feel accusatory or judgemental to the individual.

L&D providers must find a way to create a safe space, which allows people to identify their biases and take steps to re-appraise, relearn, or let go of them. The environment must be tailored to the needs of the individual or the group and support them in their journey. A thorough needs analysis should be undertaken before work begins, and the provider given the space to design a programme which best fits the needs identified. 

Concluding thoughts on unconscious bias

Understanding our own biases gives us an insight into why we behave the way that we do. Fortunately for us, the fact that bias is formed on the basis of our learning means that it has the capacity to be unlearned, re-moulded, or rejected once we are aware of it.

The key thing that L&D providers must be aware of when helping individuals and organisations to raise their consciousness of bias, is the role that bias plays in supporting that individual or business. Kicking away one leg of the table might result in a visible difference, though it leaves the structure in a precarious position. Our expert on unconscious bias, Will Karlsen, talks about the role it plays in commercial and organisational settings and what happens when development initiatives seek to ‘tackle’ bias: learn more in this video.

If something in this article touched a nerve, why not get in touch on 0117 370 1800? We’d welcome the opportunity of a conversation. And perhaps we can help you identify your own organisational biases too?

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