The Power of Unconscious Bias

Not a day goes by that I don’t read or hear something about unconscious bias. Over the past four years, I have read about, watched Youtube clips, TEDTalks, designed and delivered webinars, and led live trainings on this topic. So why all the buzz?
We all hold unconscious biases, it’s a part of human nature and it means that we can behave towards others in certain ways based on these biases. Focusing on our unconscious biases provides an inclusive way to discuss issues of diversity. It reduces shame and shaming because we all have them.
If asked, are you a prejudiced person? Most of us would emphatically answer “no!” Yet, most self-aware individuals would admit that their upbringing, education, the media, experience and lack thereof, have given them a set of perspectives that may bias their actions and decisions.
Why do we have biases? Biases arise because of heuristics—an approach to problem-solving, learning or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goal. The immediate goal is to make sense of all the information that our brain receives and processes in a matter of seconds. Our unconscious, automatic mental process sorts things into categories such as age and race, etc. Biases arise because of our use of heuristics to govern our daily decision-making. Heuristics provide a cognitive-short cut.
Every interaction we have and every decision we make are a part of or influenced by factors within and outside of our scope of awareness. In an instant, we quickly size up a person or situation, select the most important factors to consider; scan our memories for historical data points and then we develop a plan of action.
So, what’s the problem? It appears to be an efficient way to navigate lots of data in a short period of time; until you consider the limitations of our brains to contend with this process. We therefore, make assumptions about what will happen in the future based upon what we think happened in the past. We use heuristics to protect ourselves and to minimize energy and effort in our decision-making processes. There is also the problem of limited accuracy.
To build inclusive organizations requires the disruption of unconscious bias. Those affected by biases may experience feeling discounted or excluded because of who they are and the groups they belong to. Exclusion can trigger powerful emotions that are harmful to both individuals, groups, and the organization. American psychologist, Abraham Maslow uncovered the need for belongingness and its relationship to motivation. Creating inclusive environments positively affects the motivation of all who feel valued, accepted and included.
My next post will be the internal work that must be done if one wants to make decisions more consciously, disempowering their unconscious biases.