How Does Your Unconscious Bias Influence You At Work?

Updated: May 12, 2021

First things first, what is unconscious bias? Unconscious bias is the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that any of us can attribute to another person or group of people without realizing it. This unconscious bias affects how we understand and engage with other people or groups of people without us even being aware of it.

So how does unconscious bias affect us at work?

  • Gender bias: the tendency to prefer one gender over another gender, or think that one gender is more competent, better suited for the job etc.

  • Affinity bias: connecting with people who have similar interests and backgrounds to you. Sometimes, affinity bias comes into play when companies hire for a ‘culture fit’ or a ‘team fit’.

  • Confirmation bias: drawing conclusions about someone based on your beliefs, or “gut feel” about them, rather than on merit.

  • Ageism: the tendency to have negative feelings towards someone, based on their age.

  • Beauty bias: the tendency to prefer someone over someone else, because of the way they look.

  • Personality bias: we can favour people like us and can mistrust people simply because we don’t know what motivates their behaviour.

When team members are treated differently from one another because of a manager’s or other team members’ unconscious bias trust is immediately compromised. The difficulty with unconscious bias is that it affects us without us even realising it, which makes it so hard to pin point and change.

How can other people’s unconscious bias reinforce insecurities within you?

Corporate culture and leadership have historically been set up to promote internal competition and self-reinforcement. We all know about the ‘boys’ clubs’ and ‘glass ceilings’ that exist inside most large organizations. After nearly two decades of working intimately with people inside listed companies, I have witnessed the fear that exists for people outside the dominant demographic (which is white, male and “Baby Boomer”) because “alternative voices” are often quietened by the influential narrative of an organization.

Even “good companies” (ones who care about their people and do soft skills training), fall into the trap of unconscious bias, for example, because individuals who make hiring and other decisions have an unconscious bias. This often overrides legislative attempts to promote female leadership. There is still a preference for hiring men, it appears, who often get hired for their potential, whereas women often need to have a track record of performance in place before they are considered.

Unconscious bias affects how we behave, who we network with, how we adapt ourselves to “fit in”, and what kind of package we negotiate. It also affects who we choose as mentor, for example, and surprisingly both men and women at work claim they would rather have a male boss.

Our own unconscious bias can perpetuate exactly what we don’t want at work

These; and other observations, have led me to become interested in unconscious gender bias is unwittingly the cause of increased competitiveness and decreased support in the workplace for women from women.

According to PWC’s Executive directors: Practices and remuneration trends report 2020 only 6% of JSE listed companies have female CEOs. In this report, the following also comes to light:

In large, medium and small cap companies, the employee split, based on gender, is as follows:

Large: 15% female / 85% male

Medium: 14% female / 86% male

Small: 14% female / 86% male

Our identity carries with it emotional “hooks” within ourselves and from others, whether we want to admit it or not. These emotional “hooks” are what shape our bias that affects every aspect of our lives. Becoming aware of our bias is imperative for successful relationships, which is why my Personal Mastery programme asks delegates to interrogate their own bias, especially for those who have influence over others.

I often find myself asking myself what this unconscious bias is all about. Do you have an experience or view that you would like to share?

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