Breaking the habit of unconscious bias

08 March 2022 by National Bank Investments
Photo of a collage of paper faces with different colors representing diversity

First impressions count: it’s a rule on which most of us base our everyday interactions. Also, a rule that needs to be broken. In today’s fast-paced world where time is money and people are becoming more expendable, making snap judgments can cost us valuable relationships and opportunities—in the business world and beyond. That’s why having a mindset where you judge people based on first impressions should be considered an unconscious bias.

Unconscious biases influence how we communicate with our teammates, our clients and even our personal network. Fortunately, with more information on behaviours becoming available, we can raise our awareness and rethink our approach in a positive way. Active listening and unconscious bias are two key elements we can work on to improve our behaviour and have a positive impact on our personal and professional relationships.

The benefits of checking our biases at the door 

We would all like to build more just and fair workplaces, but positive intentions alone don’t lead to change. To truly change our work culture, we must address some difficult issues, demand relevant data, and implement processes that will lead to different outcomes. Change also needs to happen from the ground up, starting with the foundation of any company: its employees.

Encouraging employees to become more aware of their biases creates a more tolerant and inclusive workplace because it tends to develop stronger listening skills. This usually leads to more diverse thinking as employees feel judged less, and are more willing to speak up, share ideas and take risks. It can also lead to better collaboration and creativity in the workplace. It often results in improved commitment, loyalty, and performance, which helps boost the success of the entire organization.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Taking steps to eliminate unconscious bias has a positive impact on future employees and clients. Changing the recruitment process and being aware of the unconscious biases of the recruiter and the manager attracts higher-quality talent and candidates who share the company’s values. More importantly for the success of any organization, this also promotes greater diversity and parity in terms of race, gender, and age.

Similarly, clients who feel heard and understood tend to forge stronger long-term relationships and, through their own positive experiences, may become ambassadors for the company.

The curse of unconscious bias 

To better understand unconscious bias and why it’s so deeply engrained in our culture, we must look at the root causes. Regardless of who we are, unconscious bias is something we all share. Our brains sort and process information by taking shortcuts. We are programmed to make judgments and put people and situations in boxes, most of the time without even realizing we’re doing it.

Unconscious bias in our society extends beyond racism, sexism and ageism. For example, affinity bias is when we gravitate towards people who may be similar in terms of gender, socioeconomic status and education level. Sometimes we can also show a confirmation bias, where we tend to seek out cues and data that support our preconceived notions. There are, in fact, many different biases and generally, most of us are oblivious to the fact that we carry them around.

The good news? By becoming aware of our biases and taking concrete steps to tackle them, everybody benefits.

Concrete steps to reduce workplace bias 

Here are four concrete steps to overcome our unconscious biases:

Step 1: Acknowledge the existence of biases

We all have biases. It’s human nature. And the sooner we admit to them, the sooner we can start to fix them. Take the time to observe your thoughts and behaviours. Try to notice when familiar judgments crop up—and think twice before you voice or act on them.

Step 2: Feed your curiosity 

One of the best ways to build strong, lasting connections with your employees and clients is to take the time to get to know them. Be inquisitive, ask questions, and avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions based solely on first impressions. By doing this you can create a learning opportunity, while at the same time making the client and employee feel heard and understood.

Step 3: Retrain your brain  

Once you get into the habit of noticing when judgments and biases creep up, you can start to adapt and retrain your brain to process information in a different way. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone and approach new people. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes (or apologize if you get it wrong!).

Step 4: Apply filters 

Instead of relying on gut instinct and trusting old beliefs, try introducing new ideas and practices in your brain. For example, a rule of thumb could be that before we form an opinion about someone, we commit to meeting that person three times in three different contexts. That would allow for a broader understanding of the person rather than a snap judgement.

Shifting the pendulum 

The world will never be completely free of bias. However, by raising awareness, educating ourselves and implementing strategies to overcome our biases, we can begin to take steps in the right direction and inspire real change for ourselves and those around us. 

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