Simply put, the best time for organizations to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses in addressing how unconscious bias might be impacting their workplaces is now.
Why? Well, for starters, Canadian lawmakers are taking notice. In a recent decision, Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal found that a female department head had experienced multiple breaches of her rights under the Human Rights Code as a result of "bias and barriers she experienced as a female in leader in a male-dominated context."
Meanwhile, research shows that learning to recognize unconscious biases can serve as a form of inoculation. It works something like this: the more we know about unconscious biases and how they impact our assumptions and actions, the better we become at recognizing and interrupting those biases.
In other words, learning about unconscious bias can enable us to take actions that better align with our intentions, rather than to unchosen assumptions about ourselves and others.
For those who work in leadership and supervisory roles, acting intentionally and having those intentions understood by others is critical to ensuring workplace teams are able to achieve success, avoid disaster, and work through crisis. While anyone at any organization can benefit from unconscious bias training, such knowledge is especially valuable for those who are expected to lead and to communicate on behalf of the organization.
A starting point is recognizing that unconscious bias is not one thing. Rather, it's an umbrella term referring to various recurring patterns and mental "shortcuts" that can have significant unintended consequences on workplace communications and relationships.
Consider these important examples of specific unconscious biases that can significantly impact your workplace:
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and selectively pay attention to information that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or expectations. For example, we may focus on a minor piece of information we already believe while paying little or no attention to a majority of information that runs contrary to those same beliefs.
Consider: How might this play out in a workplace interaction like a job interview?
Expectation bias goes a step further and involves an individual unconsciously influencing a situation to nudge it in the direction of an expected outcome. For example, a supervisor who expects an employee to be upset by an announcement may inadvertently adopt a defensive tone of voice, which employees may react to by becoming upset, resulting in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Consider: How might this play out when changes to working conditions are introduced?
The illusion of transparency is when we overestimate the extent to which our thoughts, intentions and emotions are obvious and transparent to others. But the fact is, most people only see the tip of the iceberg that we try to communicate through our words and actions, and this can result in significant gaps between what we intend to communicate and the messages we may actually end up sending.
Consider: How might this impact communications during online and in-person employee social gatherings?
Research has consistently shown that implicit stereotypes can have a significant unintended impact on our words and actions, especially when we have to act or speak quickly. High-pressure situations that demand quick responses therefore increase the likelihood that such stereotypes will impact real-life decisions.
Consider: How might this impact your teams during stressful times?
The "halo effect" we tend to adopt in response to others we consider to be like ourselves is known as affinity bias. Regardless of what the perceived similarity is based on, affinity bias increases the likelihood that we will favourably interpret and remember the words and actions of others we consider to be like ourselves while denying the same blinders and benefits of the doubt to others.
Consider: How might this impact how employees are chosen for recognition and promotion?
These are just a sample of the sorts of unconscious bias that may be at play in your workplace, but in my opinion they represent a helpful starting point for thinking about how addressing unconscious bias can help your organization build a more a collegial, resilient and productive workplace—especially when you consider how each of them may operate in tandem with the others.
It can be complex, but not all that complicated.
In my next post, I'll look specifically at bias in the context of job interviews. In the meantime, if you'd like more information or to book a seminar or workshop, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
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