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What Is Unconscious Bias?

We are all inclined to make decisions by sorting and identifying people into different groups; we do this unconsciously (or we may call it intuition). What we do know is our brain makes what we may describe as low-grade decision making – without our permission. These types of decisions could even result in breaking the law… despite, in the majority of cases, not being intentional decisions.

Another factor to consider: we are living in a world that has changed immeasurably in the last 20 years. Digital technology has altered the way we interact with each other and the increase in visibility of different issues has come to the mainstream as a result of the birth of the hashtag revolution. It has changed what we know about other people’s experiences of society and the world that we live in - the world has effectively become smaller and clearer i.e. #metoo #thisgirlcan #timeup.

We perceive this material through a new societal lens; this kind of critical reflection is important to shape new views/norms. As cultures change, so do our values and beliefs. This takes whole communities, societies and generations to happen.

Diversity and inclusion are now some of the hottest topics within organisations; it is an area people have heard about and may even have suffered as a direct result of its lacking.

So why does this matter? Experts believe that the mind’s unconscious is responsible for 80% or more of our thought processes. Yet the conscious mind is simply not capable of perceiving what the unconscious is thinking. You can be two people at the same time: a conscious self who firmly believes that you do not have a bias against others because of their social identities, and an unconscious bias self who harbours stereotypes or biased attitudes that unknowingly leak into decision making and behaviours.

Our brains shape our experiences of the world in every way, from what they tell us about what we see, through to helping us predict what is about to happen. These thoughts and feelings are “implicit” if we are unaware of them or don’t know where they have come from.

According to various definitions anyone can be racist or sexist. For example, a definition of racism might be “prejudice or discrimination based on race, plus the power to enforce it.” In that case, in most Western countries, only men can be sexist and only white people can be racist. This perspective has a major impact on many people, and some respond by insisting that the “other” group can be just as racist as her or his group. This response provides an important opportunity to differentiate between an individual-focused basis of “racism” (which privileges the current power structure by ignoring systemic conditions) and an institutional-focused basis.

We know that the human brain has to prioritise what it focuses on, so it categorises some of our experiences into buckets to help us make faster decisions - but it isn’t always right. Sometimes we get an instinct about something not feeling right, sometimes we go with the flow, sometimes we don’t know until we stop and think, or someone points it out. However, we can’t use the ‘Implicit Bias’ card as an excuse for doing nothing, because doing nothing then becomes a choice that we are making!

All human beings will naturally have a bias or preference for certain types of people. These are often based on social stereotypes about certain groups of people that are formed outside of our conscious awareness. We ALL hold unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases come from our brain’s tendency to organise social worlds by categorising. Thus, we use the term “implicit bias” to describe when we have pre-set attitudes towards people or associate them with stereotypes, without our conscious knowledge.

This type of organising in the brain is far more prevalent than making a choice about having a prejudice and is often incompatible with our conscious values, but we might still demonstrate this tendency unwittingly when we are multi-tasking or working under time pressure.

Psychologists have found that most of our actions occur without conscious thought, and without this ability we wouldn’t be able to function in our extraordinarily complex world. This means, however, that some of our natural implicit biases often more accurately predict how we’ll behave than our conscious values do.

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Unconscious Bias In The WorkplaceUnconscious Bias In The Workplace Guide-1

Some may say that the most current and trending impact of unconscious bias in the workplace is the ‘gender pay gap’ - whilst it remains an issue in some organisations, there are numerous other impacts that businesses experience and people endure.

Some of those impacts are visible and therefore evident. Others are harder to see and can - if we are not made aware - drop under the radar; discrimination around recruitment is not always that obvious until such a time that HR start to review employment statistics or when a manager decides to promote his or her favourite. People notice this bias and talk about it, yet it still remains unchallenged due to the manager’s influence within the business. If you asked that manager about it, they would say they gave the promotion to the right person as that person is already someone they perhaps find it easier to work with – and, for that reason, they will not see any unfairness in their decision. One would hope that organisations have the correct policies in place to protect everyone; however, in some cases, I would question if those policies are actually being used to manage and guide the business - from experience, policies can be seen as something that only creates extra work! If only people realised that their naivety can create so much more work if their decisions are biased, and those irritating policies actually exist to protect.

Maze have worked with many businesses that are concerned with harassment and bullying – this is a common problem that results from the unconscious and conscious biases that people have. Sadly, this can often drop under the radar or be enabled by silence yet is the most destructive to those on the receiving end. The compounded impact of observers not helping and organisations not acting, and this observed behaviour is seen to be acceptable by others. Left unchallenged, this behaviour is then likely to reach epidemic levels resulting in increased absence, reduced productivity and low employee engagement, the costs of which can unnecessarily impact the bottom line.

The Maze view is that organisations have a duty to take a more proactive and challenging approach to dealing with the unconscious bias that exist -, there should be a zero-tolerance approach. Unfair treatment spills over to others, creates a damaging environment and can destroy people’s lives - imagine if it were your partner, relative or child who was on the receiving end.

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Unconscious Bias Solutions Unconscious Bias In The Workplace Guide 2

Social scientists are in the early stages of determining how to “debias.” It is clear that media and culture makers have a role to play by ceasing to perpetuate stereotypes in news and popular culture. In the meantime, institutions and individuals can identify risk areas where implicit biases may affect our behaviours and judgments.

An issue that arises regularly is that prejudice and discrimination can be positive (e.g. I am prejudiced towards my children; I am a discriminating eater). It is important to note that when these issues are discussed in the context of leading teams and taking responsibility, a prejudice towards somebody is matched by an equal prejudice against somebody else.

One of the first things you can do to really help is tune into your own brain and how it categorises all the information around it into neater compartments. ‘Focus within’ and understand a bit more about your own views and potential biases, however uncomfortable this might be. Encourage others to also try this; if we can encourage others to focus within, we can understand how biases/intuition can be responsible for our actions and behaviours.

Other ways we can reduce the results of unconscious bias that we are experiencing include:

  • Lead by example, accepting that the human brain can sometimes make a mistake; however, by increasing our awareness of unconscious bias we can start to reduce the generalisations and stereotyping that occurs.
  • Revisit your recruitment policies – are they too heavy and theoretical, or do they provide the guidance needed by managers to remove the potential bias from the decision making?
  • Call people out: avoid becoming a bystander and embrace being an upstander – don’t give an audience to an organisational bias epidemic in your workplace.
  • Encourage transparency in decision making – make your organisation a fairer and more engaging environment.

Some organisations appear to be doing ‘something’; however, Maze feels that this is all too often a ‘quick fix’ to a ‘big challenge’ - no more than a box ticking exercise that offers a high level mandatory theoretical training course, often no more than an E Learning slide deck shrouded in legislation… and managers then wonder why nothing changes. It may be better than nothing but if nothing changes, nothing will change. The topic requires a sensitive approach in which your people can appreciate its importance in the workplace and gain the confidence to become an ‘Upstander’ instead of being a ‘Bystander’.

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Unconscious Bias Leadership Unconscious Bias In The Workplace Guide 3

There are some fairly contemporary examples of where unhelpful biases still prevail in our society and, therefore, we have established that there are some biases that are implicit because of the way our brains manage information. Biases start out as unconscious but have the capacity to be leak through as conscious behaviours - this happens in everyday life.

As a leader you need to take responsibility for your actions and the actions of others. Steps you can take are:

Focus Within

  • Tune into your emotions
  • Recognise how your experience has shaped your perspective
  • Stick to facts and don’t make assumptions
  • Turn frustration into curiosity

Engage In Dialogue

  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Listen to understand, not to debate
  • Offer your views without defensiveness or combativeness
  • Disentangle impact from intent
  • Avoid blame, think contribution

Learn About Others

  • Recognise how their experiences have shaped their perspective
  • Consider how they might see the situation and what is important to them
  • Think about how your actions may have impacted them

Expand The Options

  • Brainstorm possible solutions
  • Be flexible about different ways to reach a common goal
  • Experiment and evaluate
  • Seek out diverse perspectives

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Dealing With Banter

What do we categorise as banter and where does it stop? When does banter stop being a reasonable defence? How do you decide where the line is?

Consider the difference between enjoying the joke and being the joke, recognise consequences, and tune into how others are feeling. Understand that one day the conditions are right for an individual to be the subject of the ‘banter’ but another day they might not be, and it is up to you to recognise the change in circumstance.

Some of the reasons people stop seeing the funny side of ‘banter’ include: they feel embarrassed or silly if they start to dislike a joke they are the subject of, they start to feel self-conscious, they join in because they feel that it shows they are one of the team, they feel by joining in they get to own the joke and it stops hurting, and they may actually think it is funny at the start. However, then it starts to hurt, they are embarrassed by the attention, they are embarrassed by the topic of the joke as the joke changes to something more hurtful, others join in and they feel that their whole identity is being defined by this and the banter has well and truly stopped.

Let’s be realistic: no-one is suggesting that we can’t have fun anymore or that we can’t have a sense of humour, but we are talking about EVERYONE sharing the responsibility for recognising how a joke affects people and their environment.

As a leader, you also need to really LISTEN to people and the whole message if you are to pick up on when things are not right or there are possible signs of unconscious bias in your workplace. Sometimes we need to also try and pick up on the things they aren’t saying if we really want to share the responsibility for how people in our team feel.

Listening isn’t always easy, especially when we are focused on what is going on inside our own heads, and if we really want to share the responsibility of how banter can affect individuals in a team, we need to really focus on how we listen and what we listen to.

If we listen to thoughts, to feelings and to intentions when we communicate, we are much more likely to improve the quality of the connection we have with any individual.

We tend to listen to thoughts, facts, concepts, arguments, ideas, and the principles behind these. This is ‘listening at head’ or the ‘thinking level’.

This is the most obvious way to listen - it appears to be ‘objective’ - but it is not as effective as we imagine. How often do we think our own separate thoughts or construct hasty replies?

We have all had the experience of talking to someone who says, ‘I know exactly what you mean’ and then goes on to describe something unrelated to your conversation.

The listening at head/thinking level requires a genuine interest in where the other person is coming from - an open-minded approach which does not judge his or her words according to our preconceptions.

‘Listening for the heart’ or the ‘feeling level’ focuses on feelings, emotions, mood, experience and the values or guiding principles behind these.

Listening to feelings can give us important clues about what really matters. Strongly expressed or strongly denied feelings can provide fruitful entry points to key issues that lie behind experiences.

Listening on this level means penetrating a step deeper into the speaker’s experience. These may be ‘heard’ more through the tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, etc. than what is actually said. Eyes are also useful tools in the listening process.

Silences can also be important to ‘listen’ to. They are very powerful in expressing the feelings of the speaker - sometimes silence expresses feelings of disagreement or inadequacy, boredom or anger.

This means putting yourself in the speaker’s place and understanding what they are saying ‘from their point of view’. Social sensitivity is an essential skill for building rapport and relies on the ability to empathise with the other person.

‘Listening for the feet’ or the ‘will level' looks at intentions, energy, direction, motivation, and will.

If the will does not shift nothing will and so our ability to read a person’s will is a prime enabler of our ability to engage effectively when communicating in a real way.

To sense the real intentions of another person, what they want, and why they are telling you this or that can be one of the hardest aspects of the art of listening. Often, speakers are themselves only mildly aware of what they actually want in a situation. Skilful listening can help to discover what is ‘behind’ the thoughts and ‘below’ the feelings involved.

These hidden levels are the real sources of potential energy and commitment. This will often involve sensing what is left unsaid.

One impulse of the will that is only too quick to awaken is the urge towards power and conflict, to impose our own will and resist the other person’s. If we allow these conflicting forces to arise in us whilst listening, we create an immediate barrier to a creative future work relationship.

If we can hold back ‘my way’ of acting in the situation, and continually look for elements of common direction, understanding and experience, we may be able to open the way towards more engaging communication that gives us the wider picture of what is really happening.

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‘Upstander’ vs ‘Bystander’ Unconscious Bias In The Workplace Guide 4

We all have the ability to make choices and we all get to choose our behaviours - they aren’t as automatic as we think. There is evidence to suggest that we all experience an element of social conformity and are influenced by the group; whether the group has a positive or negative effect, the influence is equally powerful.

Social Proof has long since been proven to be a considerable influence on human behaviour; it relies on people’s sense of “safety in numbers.”

For example, we’re more likely to work late if others in our team are doing the same, put a tip in a jar if it already contains money, or eat in a restaurant if it’s busy. Here, we’re assuming that if lots of other people are doing something, then it must be okay.

Kitty Genovese was a 28-year-old woman who was brutally murdered outside of her Queens apartment in New York City on March 13, 1964.

Her attack lasted around 30 minutes as she was stabbed 14 times by a man named Winston Moseley. There were 37 bystanders who turned their back on Genovese’s cries for help, shutting their doors and windows to block out the screams.

Psychologists Latane and Darley coined this the ‘Bystander effect’ – it occurs when the greater the number of people who witness a person in need of emergency help, the less likely an observer will take action.

We’re particularly susceptible to this principle when we’re feeling uncertain, and we’re even more likely to be influenced if the people who do nothing seem to be similar to us.

The ‘bystander effect’ is a part of human nature - but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. We see similar effects in response to occupational violence, workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Whilst many employees may witness or even experience inappropriate and harmful behaviours and acts in the workplace, many fail to intervene.

So why does this phenomenon occur? Is it because we lack compassion or empathy, that we are immune to the painful experiences of others?

As humans, we are hardwired to avoid threatening situations. When we observe such behaviour in others, we exercise high degrees of caution due to feelings of uncertainty and inability to predict another’s behaviour. The ‘Bystander effect’ can occur as a result of this desire to avoid harm, whilst also being able to rationalise the decision not to intervene by diffusing responsibility to others.

This occurs in the same way in the workplace. Only 12% of workers report seeing workplace bullying - this means that bullying in the workplace is underreported. In other words, many workers likely see bullying, but they don’t recognise it as a problem. For example, if an employee sees someone demeaning another’s work, they might think, “Oh, they are just teasing.” This is one part of the problem.

The more observers there are, the less likely they are to help because of something known as “diffusion of responsibility” – in other words, telling ourselves that ‘someone else’ will step in, so we don’t have to.

Bystanders therefore play a crucial part in the dynamics of workplace misconduct because they have the power to end it by standing up to the perpetrator or reporting it to management. Bullies are cowards and when confronted they are likely to desist. Supportive bystanders therefore act as ‘Upstanders’ - not just passive ‘bystanders’.

We believe more people need to become ‘upstanders’ if we are going to make an impact on reducing this issue - so how do we make this happen?

The first step is acknowledging its existence. If you notice someone being harassed at work don’t disregard it as teasing or ’the price of admission’ - approach them and ask them if they need help. Do not encourage or support the behaviour and do not stand by and watch. Make it clear to your colleagues that you won’t be involved in the behaviour. Avoid gossiping about others, and do not acknowledge, reply or forward messages or photos that could be hurtful or embarrassing to a colleague.

Do not be scared or nervous about telling the bully that their behaviour is unacceptable, report the behaviour to HR, a manager, a colleague, or use your organisation’s whistle-blower process. Approach the victim/target to let them know you are aware of the behaviour and that it’s not acceptable, also encourage them to ask for help, go with them to get help or provide them with information about where to go for help. Let them know they’re not alone – victims of bullying, in particular, feel isolated and lonely.

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Eliminating Unconscious Bias

It is highly unlikely that you will ever completely eliminate unconscious bias in your workplace - after all, we are all human. However, doing nothing is not an option. Taking a lethargic over theoretical approach is not an option either - this is a human issue and needs a sensitive human approach. Your focus should be around developing an inclusive culture one where people can still have fun but, at the same time, understand and respect the feelings of others.

Accept that you will not be able to rewire everyone’s brain and intuition. However, by developing an inclusive culture you will increase awareness, which is the first step. Highlighting real-time workplace examples that are happening on a daily basis will be a good second step and adopting a zero-tolerance approach to the negative results of biases will go a long way in helping to change people’s lives.

So, what do you need to do to reduce the issue of unconscious bias in your workplace?

Firstly, if you are already doing something please don’t stop - this is more important than many people realise.

The advice from Maze is:

Take a structured approach in engaging new behaviours – this may need to be a multi-faceted approach or simply raising awareness and following up on bad behaviours.

Providing action-oriented solutions and strategies on becoming an ‘upstander’ or self-reporting unacceptable biased behaviours is a must.

Involve your people in the process of debiasing your organisation. Being defensive about this topic can be normal - we do not have unconscious biases because we are bad people. However, oversimplification can be misinterpreted as ‘this behaviour is okay’ when it is not - so tread carefully!

Workplace simulation is best – make it current, make it relevant, make it memorable!

I believe Natalie Holder, author of Exclusion: Strategies for increasing Diversity in Recruitment, Retention and Promotion, sums it up when she says, ‘Even those with the best intentions have difficulty tying their words to their actions. Creating an inclusive culture takes shaking our unconscious minds awake and questioning our actions’. We do need to wake some people up to the biases they have, making them understand when banter stops being a reasonable defence, and encouraging them to be one of life’s upstanders rather than the bystander who, in their lack of action, is effectively condoning the bad behaviour they observe. It really is time to change. Talk to the people who know how to help your organisation - experience amazing results with Maze. Others have, so why wouldn’t you?

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