How employees and managers can combat unconscious bias
Why is reducing the influence of unconscious bias, or "unbiasing” as it's called at Google, so difficult? For starters, you're dealing with the unconscious and there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Research shows it’s difficult to detect unconscious subtleties and it’s hard to take action on something you don’t detect. But there are things individuals can proactively do to make the unconscious conscious.
My co-author, Dr. Eden King, Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, and I reviewed the literature for a paper published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) Science of HR White Paper Series. The paper identifies a number of strategies that can help individuals, employees and managers alike, take charge of their unconscious bias and begin unbiasing the workplace.
What an employee can do:
- Listen and offer support. When listening to coworkers, try to reflect and offer empathetic support. Research has shown that support can be a strong predictor of the attitudes of stigmatized individuals. It’s no surprise, then, that a panel of chief diversity officers from Fortune 500 companies said “listening” was a fundamental skill for cultural understanding in a session on “The Power of Words” at the Academy of Management Conference in 2014.
- Call out bias and intervene. Intervening in a situation may feel like a confrontation, and research shows people are generally hesitant to intervene. But this is especially important for those who can't stand up for themselves for fear of being “outed” (e.g., sexual orientation minorities, religious minorities).
What a manager can do:
- Watch for bias blind spots. People may believe that they are less prejudiced than most others, but people may be blind to their own unconscious biases. The disconnect between egalitarian values and subtly biased actions can be made visible by highlighting that there’s a problem, feeling the emotional consequences (e.g., guilt) and considering the events that caused them.
- Challenge assumptions. Even when trying to make objective, data-based decisions, it’s helpful to question how unconsciously biased assumptions may be influencing decision makers. Ask, “what assumptions am I making in this decision?” even if you feel your assumptions are benevolent.
- Be a role a model of inclusion. Social network research shows that people from underrepresented groups may not be included as often in conversations with upper management. And even when those underrepresented individuals are included, their contributions may be misattributed or ignored. Managers can help make sure everyone is able to contribute and credit is given duly.
While these lists aren’t exhaustive or mutually exclusive, they provide an important starting point for employees and managers to begin unbiasing their own workplace experience and that of their coworkers.