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Your Hidden Brain – The Perils of Unconscious Bias at Work

by | Mar 8, 2017 | Business Training

If you’re a manager, do you want to be sure you treat people fairly when hiring or firing?

In performance reviews, can you be sure that you rate on merit alone?

When building collaborative teams, do you select the most qualified employees or ones with whom you’re most comfortable?

Although you want to do the right thing, do you?

You are not alone.

Committed to the business of learning, DigitalChalk designates March to kick-off our monthly themed blog posts by tackling the pernicious side of Unconscious Bias.

In subsequent weeks, we will unveil a series of educational posts on the unconscious bias buried deep within our hidden brains. We will define the nature of unconscious bias, explore its impact, and offer a solution to help you recognize it when it strikes.

You will learn the myriad ways unconscious bias seeps into the workplace, affecting the most well-intentioned business goals for diversity training.

We breakdown unconscious bias into three weekly posts: 1) disability discrimination in the workplace; 2) racial bias and its impact in the workplace; 3) gender bias and its influence in the workplace.

Our journey begins with a single declaration:

Everyone Carries Unconscious Bias

While you might deny this statement, science will prove you wrong.

Over millenniums, the human brain became hard-wired to make decisions quickly, to detect danger, and to survive hostile environments.

DigitalChalk: Your Hidden Brain- The Perils of Unconscious Bias at WorkIt’s one thing to wander the savannah gathering food; it’s quite another to do it in the sudden presence of a saber-toothed tiger. Unconscious bias kept early man safe.

Modern humans also rely on unconscious bias to size up situations fast. Will that person racing toward me steal my cell phone? Oh no, that car is running a red light, what do I do?

Unconscious bias manifests in the fight or flight phenomenon, helping us to react to hundreds of situations a day that might help or hurt us.
You meet someone for the first time; your brain immediately wants to figure out if they are friend or foe.

DigitalChalk: Your Hidden Brain- The Perils of Unconscious Bias at Work

The business adage that ‘people like doing business with people like themselves’ is a result of unconscious bias with both positive and negative consequences.

On the positive side, you’re comfortable with and drawn to like-minded others; on the negative side, you’re more likely to miss someone who could make a significant difference in your life, if you could only “see” them.

But your bias blocks your vision.

Conventional wisdom says we’re given somewhere between seven to 30 seconds to make a first impression on meeting another person. Not long, at all.

Worse yet, a series of experiments by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov “reveal that all it takes is a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their face, and that longer exposures don’t significantly alter those impressions” (“First Impressions” in an edition of Psychological Science).

Our unconscious bias kicks in acting like mental shorthand, helping us to sort and categorize people, places, and things. If not, we would be completely awash in disparate bytes of data.

In a study at the University of California-San Diego, researchers came to believe that people are inundated daily with the equivalent amount of 34 gigabytes of information, enough data to fill up a typical laptop in only one week.

Defining Unconscious Bias

Consider this: You may be an excellent, well-qualified candidate for a position as an organizational development manager in a fast-growing, seemingly diverse corporation. However, on meeting the SVP of human resources, something did not feel right about the handshake or interview.

Unconsciously, you reminded her of her Uncle Carl with whom she never got along. Alas, no callback. This brush off may seem frivolous and unfair; however, it happens every day in the workplace.

Unconscious bias arises from our upbringing, cultural experiences, and media exposure. Many definitions of unconscious or implicit bias come to mind. Here are two:

We like this one from consulting firm, PeopleFluent:

“A subjective preference toward a particular viewpoint or belief that prevents a person from maintaining objectivity.”

Malcolm Gladwell discusses implicit bias in Blink, his bestseller:

“All of us have implicit biases to some degree. This does not necessarily mean we will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that our first “blink” sends us certain information. Acknowledging and understanding this implicit response and its value and role is critical to informed decision-making and is particularly critical to those whose decisions must embody fairness and justice.”

How do we guard against these bias roadblocks to open thinking?

We do not want them to affect our ability to make good decisions, to work well on teams, to tap into everyone’s full potential, and build more productive purpose-driven organizations.

Recognize and Understand Unconscious Bias

Step one:  Awareness. You cannot alter what you do not know exists. The very nature of “unconscious” bias means it hides in our subconscious mind, humming away on autopilot, waiting to offer up a judgment on what’s in front of you.

Few of us easily admit to our biases even when made aware of them.

We know these biases can morph into stereotypes, prejudices, or worse, outright discrimination. And we want to think better of ourselves.

Imagine a well-intentioned CEO, convinced he has done everything to eliminate discrimination in his company.

He has spent a small fortune on HR methods to root out discrimination─ from hiring tests to performance ratings and grievance procedures, but he is still losing top talent, and cannot pinpoint why.  And it affects his ability to compete effectively in the marketplace.

Of course, he wants to avoid lawsuits, but his greater goal is to improve his corporate culture.

To maximize the effectiveness of his HR policies and procedures, our CEO must be made aware of the effect of unconscious bias in the workplace. In a perfect world, the best diversity training is voluntary where managers can choose to involve themselves in a training opportunity, like mentoring their protégés. The need to identify the reality of unconscious bias in both employer and employee requires more formal training.DigitalChalk: Your Hidden Brain- The Perils of Unconscious Bias at Work

One thing researchers in the field have noticed is that “while a group of similar people feels better for its members, a diverse group consistently performs better, making it clearly worth our while to figure out the bias conundrum.”1

The Bigger $64 Billion Bias Problem

Workplace discrimination against employees based on race, gender or sexual orientation costs businesses an estimated $64 billion annually, per the Center for American Progress.

Some of the costs stem from the turnover of some two million employees who exit jobs each year due to discrimination.

DigitalChalk: Your Hidden Brain- The Perils of Unconscious Bias at WorkSmith Barney and Merrill Lynch settled sex discrimination claims for $100 million each in the early 2000s. In 2013, Bank of America Merrill Lynch settled a race discrimination suit for $160 million.

1 “How To Work With Unconscious Bias In Your Organization,” Forbes Magazine, June 25, 2016

More recently, sexual harassment charges hit Uber, Sterling Jewelers, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate behind Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, and ubiquitous McDonalds for both sexual and racial discrimination. Google and many Silicon Valley tech companies are under fire for lack of diversity in their ranks.

Everyone pays the price for workplace discrimination caused by unconscious bias.

Start Right Where You Are

Thousands of opportunities exist to acquire the knowledge needed to do things differently and to do things right in the workplace. And we have a suggestion.

One simple way to demystify the complexity of unconscious bias begins with our focused online course, aptly called Unconscious Bias, from our extensive content library of 250 subject-specific courses on talent development, skills development, and compliance.

You can preview our Unconscious Bias course for free.  Test yourself. Find out what biases may be hiding in your brain.

This 60-minute, easy-to-learn course is designed specifically to instill in your workforce the actionable knowledge needed for immediate application.

As a result, your organization will be better positioned to mitigate risk, increase productivity, and manage your talent for optimal results.

Or you can call one of our educational experts at 828.321.2451 to introduce you to our extensive course content library, perfectly primed for your training programs.

Either way, you win.

Because you’ve taken the first step toward Awareness.

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