It’s not intentional, it’s not malicious and it’s not consistent.
The manifestation of unconscious bias occurs through mindless acts, decisions and choices that are performed through habit and familiarity which result in us failing to explore what else could be possible, what else might work and what other options there may be.
It’s an automatic response to a familiar situation. It’s laziness of the mind, or perhaps a desire to be efficient, or achieve a tight deadline or it may be we have just never considered there may be different options. It is where we do what we’ve always done – to inevitably achieve the same result.
When presenting an unconscious bias awareness seminar recently that included feedback and examples from within their own organisaion, many of the senior executives were perplexed and confronted.
The questions that percolated in the room included:
- ‘How could ‘this’ be going on in my organisation?’
- ‘I haven’t noticed it happening’.
- ‘I like where we work, we do a lot of great things – this doesn’t reflect my experience’.
That’s the point. Unconscious bias is exactly that – unconscious. It is not seen, not noticed and not recognised.
We exhibit bias when we:
- favour people ‘like me’;
- appoint people who are familiar and trusted;
- solicit the advice and input from the people we know we can rely on;
- allocate work to those who have delivered before;
- invite the same people to after work drinks;
- pull a sports team together from those we consider young and fit enough,
When we act, make decisions or choices informed by unconscious bias we don’t recognise that we are not seeing the whole picture and that we may be:
- Implicitly devaluing the contribution others might make,
- Making decisions that result in sub-optimal outcomes;
- Excluding some people from participating or developing;
- Looking for evidence of what we expect to see, rather than what else there is;
- Making implicit assumptions about people without scrutiny;
- Reinforcing a way of thinking and acting that limits creativity, innovation and better outcomes;
- Perpetuating something that is not useful.
We bring the same people together and do things the way we’ve always done them because it’s easy, comfortable, and familiar and it seems to work. If it didn’t work, we would experience some level of pain, discomfort, or criticism that would accrue through lower profit margins, missed deadlines, or poor quality outcomes. Then we might pay more attention.
At the moment, most organisations are filled with people who do things with the best intentions and achieve results that are good enough.
But we can do better. It’s time we paid attention. It’s time to do things differently, risk inviting those who are not ‘like us’ to participate and contribute and notice the difference it makes.