Unconscious bias in the workplace is a pervasive phenomenon that is often overlooked. These biases often go unrecognized due to our natural predispositions toward certain prejudices, making them particularly difficult to address. Despite its subtle nature, it can be incredibly influential and damaging, often leading to poor decision outcomes.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is an attitude, belief, or idea we hold without awareness. It can influence our thoughts and behaviors positively and negatively, often leading to judgments or assumptions about people and situations based on stereotypes or assumptions.
Unconscious bias in the workplace is an implicit bias where people unknowingly project their thoughts, beliefs, and fears onto others or groups without realizing it.
Unconscious bias in the workplace affects the equality and fair treatment of employees. It is often hard to recognize as it is, by definition, not intentional – and can arise from our relationships, cultural values, and stereotypes we form based on our own experiences and expectations.
In the workplace, these biases can lead to employees having limited opportunities for career advancement regardless of their skills, abilities, or potential. This leaves a feeling of uncertainty and unfairness among team members, damaging employee morale.
What are examples of unconscious bias?
Good examples of unconscious bias include a manager making snap judgments about what type of team member would be best for a project based on existing stereotypes, such as automatically assuming that male employees are better suited for more technical jobs.
Unconscious bias can prevent qualified people from progressing in their careers simply because they do not fit certain preconceived notions. Many instances of this kind of bias occur in the workplace every day. Here are 12 unconscious bias examples:
1. Thinking assertive people are competent and strong leaders
This could be because such behavior often signals that the person is confident in their abilities, which inspires confidence in those around them.
On the other hand, those lacking assertiveness may be seen as weak and incapable of being leaders despite their existing skills or knowledge.
However, it does not necessarily mean that assertiveness correlates to competency. Someone may appear assertive but needs to gain the skills and knowledge needed to be an effective leader.
This type of bias can create inequality in the workplace by making it difficult for people who are less aggressive but still highly capable of receiving recognition for their abilities.
It is vital to establish clear criteria for evaluating competency to ensure a fair assessment of people’s abilities and counter any unconscious bias around assertiveness. Performance should be judged based on individual behavior, skills, knowledge, and achievements.
In addition, performance should be measured against objective standards rather than relying on subjective observations about assertiveness or demeanor.
2. Thinking that there can only be one top performer in a team
People tend to view success in the workplace through a “winner takes all” perspective, believing only one top performer can exist in any team or workplace.
However, this is untrue and leads to a detrimental cycle of competition and depreciation, which erodes a sense of collective accomplishment.
The truth is that performance relies on variables like attitude, skills, motivation, willingness to learn, teamwork, and collaboration.
Therefore, multiple individuals can excel in a team environment, creating an atmosphere of success that benefits everybody.
So, it is wrong to believe that only one person can be a top performer in any team or workplace and that everyone else is expendable.
To foster success in an environment where everybody contributes, managers must create an atmosphere of collaboration where ideas are shared openly.
In addition, providing opportunities for all employees to learn new skills allow them to grow and become better performers. Finally, celebrating small wins together as a team helps build morale and make everyone feel valued.
3. Dismissing people who don’t fit our stereotype of a ‘good’ employee
We have difficulty judging people on their merits because we often measure them against ourselves and our preconceived notions of what constitutes a “good” employee.
We often measure those who do not fit our stereotypes of a “good” employee against our achievement standards, even when those standards are mediocre.
In doing so, we fail to recognize each person’s unique skills, qualities, and experiences, which leads us to overlook what someone has to offer.
Without objectively considering each person’s merits, our expectation of what defines ‘good’ may be limiting us from uncovering true talent in the workplace.
When judged relatively and on their merits rather than our own standards, everyone can prove their worth and demonstrate great potential otherwise overlooked.
Setting aside our prejudices can be challenging, but this is essential for unlocking success within the team or workplace.
We must rise above our biases to promote the best people for a job and unlock success within our teams — failure to do so only means missing out on some genuinely remarkable employees.
4. Giving better reviews to employees who we consider as ‘team players
Managers tend to reward employees who demonstrate strong team-working skills and collaborate with colleagues rather than those who focus solely on their efforts.
Collaboration and teamwork allow for greater efficiency and accuracy as multiple perspectives are considered.
However, it is essential to be aware of potential unconscious biases which could lead to preferential treatment of those perceived as ‘team players’.
While teamwork should be encouraged, individual initiative and effort should also be recognized for reviews to reflect fair judgment – this is because unconscious bias often plays a part in these decisions.
Managers may value certain behaviors over others, such as praising someone for being a ‘team player’ simply because they fit the stereotype without considering their actual level of contribution.
Managers must strive to identify and eliminate these biases to ensure fairness in our employee performance evaluation.
5. Looking for information that confirms our beliefs
We tend to seek confirmation of our beliefs and ignore information that disproves them, which can lead to severe problems. This unconscious bias often devastates our ability to make informed decisions, as we become biased towards evidence confirming our views.
For instance, it can cause us to make choices that endanger customers and employees if we do not objectively consider alternative perspectives.
However, there are things we can do to overcome this tendency by acknowledging our limitations and actively listening to different viewpoints. We should actively seek out diverse perspectives and be willing to challenge our own beliefs.
Rather than looking for evidence that supports what we already believe, we should be open to new ideas and strive to evaluate information objectively.
Considering alternative viewpoints can help us better understand the bigger picture and ensure our decisions are based on sound reasoning rather than confirmation bias.
6. Judging others without understanding their motives
We often judge people based on their actions and words instead of attempting to understand why they made those mistakes. We make snap judgments without considering the motivations behind someone’s behavior.
Understanding a people’s motives before judging them and getting a better sense of their intentions will be best.
We should remember that no one is perfect and that people should be evaluated based on their best moments rather than just their worst ones.
To break the cycle of judging others based on their actions and words without attempting to understand their motivation, we should work to understand the root cause behind their mistakes.
This involves shifting our mindset from viewing them as having made a wrong decision to knowing why they chose that action.
We could then have an honest discussion with them, allowing us to gain insight into their perspective and better understand the motivations behind their choices.
Such a conversation will let us learn more about the individual and help us judge based on facts, not assumptions or preconceived notions.
7. Helping those who are similar to us
We are drawn to those who are similar to us and often make connections more easily with them. This can lead to unfairness at work, as we tend to favor those like us and ignore the unique strengths of those who are different.
To create greater equity in the workplace, we must strive to overcome our natural inclination towards familiarity.
We must ask ourselves why we automatically trust people like us and work towards understanding one another instead of judging based on appearances or past mistakes.
Understanding cultural and social differences between people can prevent us from making assumptions based on stereotypes or prior experiences.
In addition, we must strive to be aware of our personal preferences, which can influence our decisions, and instead seek out diverse perspectives and create opportunities for people with different backgrounds.
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8. Making assumptions about an employee’s preferences
Making assumptions about an employee’s preferences, outlooks, and motivations based on age can be a dangerous consequence of unconscious bias in the workplace.
It is easy to pigeonhole employees into certain expectations or labels because of their age, but this can create an atmosphere of unfairness that holds people back from reaching their potential.
Such assumptions can lead to decisions not reflective of individual contributions and capabilities. Age may be considered when making decisions regarding promotion or performance reviews, which limits the potential for those judged simply by age instead of merit or effort.
To eliminate these types of prejudices and ensure everyone has equal opportunities in the workplace, managers must take the time to recognize how their biases may impact decision-making and challenge any preconceived notions they have about employees.
Understanding each person’s unique perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences is vital for creating an equitable work environment.
In addition, rather than jumping to conclusions about what a person may or may not need or want when it comes to their job, we should listen carefully and ask questions to ensure our assumptions are accurate. This will ensure that each employee is treated fairly and their needs are considered.
9. Assuming no cultural differences between team members
A manager managing a team of employees from different backgrounds assumes that there are no cultural differences between staff, resulting in an artificial homogenized workplace where everyone is expected to conform to the same standards.
These cultural differences can significantly impact how people interact and approach work, from communication styles to religious practices.
When a manager fails to recognize the cultural differences between their staff members, it can have severe consequences in the workplace.
Collaboration and creativity may be lacking without understanding how different cultures contribute to the team. This can lead to tension within the team and a general feeling of exclusion or lack of respect among employees.
As a result, the team may not reach its full potential and could experience decreased morale and motivation. To become more culturally aware, managers should actively dialogue with their team members and solicit feedback on how cultural differences affect workplace dynamics.
10 Automatically disqualify a candidate based on past experiences
Unconscious bias can influence hiring decisions, leading to a hiring manager automatically disqualifying a candidate based on past experience without considering their current capabilities.
This overlooks potential, failing to assess applicants objectively against criteria relevant to the role. Disregarding this person’s qualities and assuming they will not perform can mean losing great talent that could benefit the company.
Hiring managers should conduct interviewing processes free of discriminatory language or assumptions while staying mindful of preconceived notions based on background or experience.
Evaluate candidates solely on merit, selecting the most suitable one while avoiding choices that do not reflect the company’s needs.
11. Ignoring someone’s ideas because they are inexperienced
It is easy to dismiss someone’s ideas if they seem too inexperienced or junior. Still, it is essential to remember that no matter the experience level, everyone has valuable insights and perspectives.
Dismissing a person’s opinion because of inexperience undermines their potential and may even stunt their personal growth.
It signals that your input does not matter unless you’re an “expert,” when often, the opposite is true. Ignoring ideas or suggestions from individuals without experience can also negatively impact a team goal’s progress.
By not allowing those with less experience to contribute, you could overlook new possibilities and robust solutions you would not have considered before.
This means that mistakes made due to inexperience will be avoided, creating an opportunity for learning and other team collaboration.
In short, ignoring ideas and suggestions from people who are young or inexperienced does far more harm than good. Everyone has something valuable to offer, regardless of their background or level of knowledge.
So, it is essential to nurture this spirit of exploration and innovation by treating each suggestion with equal consideration and respect.
12. Believing that people working long hours are more productive
Believing that working hours indicate capability and productivity is an example of unconscious bias in the workplace.
In reality, this is not true — working long hours may not be necessary for every individual to contribute effectively, as different people have different paces and styles of working.
People who make these assumptions often lack an understanding of different work styles. Long working hours may not necessarily equate to higher productivity, as other people work productively differently.
The focus should be on total output and quality, not the number of hours worked — otherwise, it ignores individuals’ unique skills and abilities.
The factors contributing to a person’s productivity include organization, focus, task prioritization, collaboration with others, luck, and motivation levels, not only working long hours.
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Unconscious bias in the workplace is an insidious form of discrimination that has a detrimental impact on employees and employers.
Unconscious bias can deter hiring or firing decisions, delay promotions, and lead to unfair treatment of employees. While it may be difficult to detect and even harder to overcome, we all must actively challenge such behaviors within the workplace.
A zero-tolerance stance against unconscious bias in the workplace can create a more open, equitable atmosphere for everyone.