Nov 21, 2022

How does unconscious bias affect the workplace?

A famous riddle goes: “A boy and his father experience a plane crash where the father dies. As the boy reaches the operating table, the surgeon exclaims, “I can’t operate on my son.” Who’s the surgeon? How many of you answered that the surgeon was the boy’s other father? Were you stumped and struggling to realize the surgeon is the boy’s mother?

There’s no escaping unconscious bias. Biases are the beliefs we hold about other people and groups that are embedded deep in our psyche. Simply put, it’s what we often refer to as stereotypes. 

In the surgeon riddle detailed above, many societies assume men to be surgeons and that men and women hold different roles. Our assumption about gender roles is a commonly known bias but there are many types of unconscious bias. 

As this overview of the psychology behind unconscious bias explains, there are both cognitive and implicit biases. The implicit biases are the stereotypes we’ve mentioned while the cognitive biases are how we use information to make decisions.

When answering the question “how does unconscious bias affect the workplace,” consider that unconscious or implicit bias happens automatically. Our judgments on race, gender, and age become reactions. These tend to lead to discriminatory behavior, without even realizing it. Those unconscious attitudes can have a dangerous impact and make employees feel unvalued or worse, rejected.  

All this bias affects the workplace because it infiltrates every people team: recruitment, leadership & development, onboarding, talent management, performance reviews, project allocation, coaching and promotions. 

How does unconscious bias affect the workplace?

The errors in judgment adversely impact the bottom line. Here’s how: 

  • Poor decision-making: Limited ideas lead to a lack of innovation and lackluster solutions that cost millions of dollars.
  • Cultural immaturity: With affinity bias, you create teams of like-minded people. Without diverse backgrounds and interests, innovation stalls and you miss out on the richness that a diverse culture brings to business strategy.  
  • Lack of engagement: Whatever unconscious bias effect is happening around; someone will feel alienated. Not only does this go against the value of putting people first, but it also builds an undercurrent of resentment. Eventually, this will blow up as a mass exodus or even court cases. 

How do you wield your power? 

As we described in our previous blog on cross-cultural communication, organizations sit on an intercultural development continuum. If you are part of the dominant culture within your business, you are even more likely to succumb to cognitive bias – filtering information via personal experience and preference. 

Examples of cognitive bias include the halo effect (the transfer of feelings from one attribute to the attributes of something else unrelated) and confirmation bias (the tendency to favor and interpret information that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values) which are particularly apparent in organizations. Look at companies where people somehow seem to act and dress similarly. A biased assumption is that someone who looks like themselves is trustworthy and inherently good. In other words, their appearance has haloed their personality. They might then further confirm this because they look similar in style and appearance. 

The work environment often involves a complex web of biases. If you’re in the dominant culture, you are blinded by your biases even more because you’re in a comfortable illusion that everything works. 

Reflect on how you use your power of being in the dominant culture. Do you get things done through your network? Are your processes task-focused or relationship-focused? Are all the promotion opportunities local versus international? How do people get rewarded and are working parents claiming those rewards as easily as single people? Finally, where do the real nitty-gritty decisions get made – on the golf course or in the club lounge room? 
Of course, everyone wants to be in the privileged group, and it takes self-awareness and courage to break away from the norms of inclusivity. Nevertheless, the impact of unconscious bias is so deep that in the end, you’ll surround yourself with yes people if you don’t. Simultaneously, your business will stagnate and fail to meet the expectations of the diverse world outside your inner club. 

In terms of performance, how does unconscious bias affect the workplace? 

  • It decreases motivation and productivity: When people are treated unfairly or witness others being treated unfairly, it necessarily affects their workplace. People get stressed wondering if it’s their turn next. All this leads to emotional exhaustion and poor performance as shown in several studies on unfair treatment
  • It flaws judgments: One of the dire consequences of bias at work is that it flaws your judgment. That’s when you hire people who just agree with you or you miss out on key customers because they’re not in the boys’ club. 
  • It creates missed opportunities: Groupthink is another outcome of the effects of unconscious bias. How many times have you seen the boss make his point and no one challenges it? You never know what new projects could have been instead.

Reframe your unconsciousness

We can’t just satisfy ourselves by answering the question “how does unconscious bias affect the workplace,” we also need to know how to counteract it. How do we uncover our unconscious judgments so that the work environment can be a safe place for everyone? 

Educate yourself about what bias in the workplace looks like. For example, are you always hiring people who think like you? Do you gravitate towards data and people that support your views or, as in affinity bias, are similar to you? What about favoring genders, ages or races?

As this article on whether bias is unavoidable states, we can never completely get away from our biases, but we can mitigate them. We do this by setting up our systems to support impartial decision-making. Most importantly, we work with leadership coaches to learn self-reflection and explore our blind spots. 
Companies can also collaborate with language coaches to make unconscious bias conversations part of our everyday. We can’t do this alone and we need peer feedback and constant check-ins that include analyzing the words we use

Finally, we’ll leave you with these self-reflection questions as you continue your quest to unpack your unconscious mind. 

  • What assumptions about other people came from your family?
  • When do you make a judgment about someone’s outer appearance?
  • How many activities or groups have you been part of when you’ve been the odd one out?
  • How did the different schools, universities, clubs and companies shape your values and behaviors? 
  • Who validates the fairness of your decisions? 


Coaching, Company Culture, L&D, Leadership, People, Skills-Based Coaching

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