The topic sounds like an oxymoron, isn’t it? After all, how can we overcome something which is unconscious, which we don’t even know exists? The truth is that we all use stereotypes, assumptions and unconscious biases without even knowing it! Psychologists have highlighted that we are each ‘hard wired’ to respond positively towards people who we perceive to be like us and react negatively towards people we perceive to be different from us. The problem arises when these biases affect innovation, productivity and decision making at workplace. Let’s look at the following example:

When YouTube launched the video upload feature for their app, 5-10% of videos were uploaded upside-down. Google developers were perplexed as to how such a large percentage of users are shooting their videos incorrectly? “Incorrectly” was the key word. Google engineers had inadvertently designed the app for right-handed users. They never considered the fact that phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in a user’s left hand. Hence, unconsciously, Google developers had created an app which worked best for right handed users and didn’t even consider the possibility of the app being used by left handed people.

So, how do we overcome these biases. While it may be impossible to completely eliminate these biases, we can deploy strategies to reduce the chances of unconscious biases clouding our judgment in our personal and professional life. A good place to begin is to be aware of red flag behaviours or actions and keep an open mind towards these – e.g. If you observe that the new recruit who used to contribute in meetings has suddenly gone quiet and does not speak up in calls and meetings, it may be a sign of him/her feeling unheard/isolated as others may unconsciously not be including this person in gatherings/ talks.

Overcoming biases

  1. RECOGNIZE – Recognize that the biases do exist among all of us. We are “hard wired” for it. It affects our thoughts, decisions and preferences.
  2. IMPACT – Assess how unconscious biases may be hurting your organization. Identify the common biases prevalent in organizations which can affect outcomes.
  3. SELF AUDIT – Consistently check your assumptions and ask yourself what decisions are you making and why. What data/ logic/ precedents have been used for the decision?

Organizations have been struggling to weed out potentially harmful behaviours which are almost always accompanied along with unconscious biases.

As early as 1970s and 80s, orchestras realized that they were hiring mainly men. They came up with a unique solution of conducting ‘blind auditions’ and the number of women hired into orchestras significantly increased.

This indicates that organizations consciously need to create processes that minimize biases in various areas like hiring, mentoring, promotion, recognition etc and develop structures to enhance the minimization of bias. This can include Training Programs so that employees become aware of how bias can show up and what to do about it.

What are the unconscious biases prevalent in your organization? How are these biases manifesting themselves in everyday behaviours? Are they changing the very fabric of your organization in a silent way?

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