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Tackling Unconscious Bias in Leadership

Workplace diversity is incredibly important no matter what type of business you operate.

If someone was to ask you; ‘do you consider yourself a biased person’ your immediate reaction is probably ‘of course not!’. But the problem with unconscious bias is that it can be extremely hard to recognise in ourselves.

So, let’s take a bit of time to unpack what unconscious bias is and what you can do as a leader to make sure it isn’t clouding your decision making!

What is Unconscious Bias?

One way to think of unconscious bias is to think about how you form a first impression. When we meet someone for the first time, we make quick, snap judgements often based on factors like past experience and sometimes even societal pressures and norms.

This might include jumping to the conclusion that men are better than women at maths, women are better than men at multi-tasking or even that an older person won’t be as good at digital tasks as a younger counterpart.

Why is this a problem? Well, these unconscious biases aren’t reliable informants about people. If you find, for example, that you’re making decisions around recruitment because of an unconscious bias you might be disregarding the best candidate and hiring someone who isn’t going to help your business succeed.

Let’s take a look at some common types of unconscious bias before we unpack what you can do to address your own way of thinking, and that of the people around you.

Different Types of Unconscious Bias

All of us have some unconscious biases, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it’s when we’re unaware of our biases that they can begin to cause us issues.

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is a tendency to be drawn to people who remind us of ourselves.

When we’re around people who we feel an affinity towards, we naturally start to give off a number of non-verbal cues that offer out acceptance and build up trust. This can be things like making eye contact, listening more intently and even giving each other more room to speak.

But what happens when we don’t feel this natural affinity with the people we work with? Well, whereas your workplace might feel like the most welcoming space in the world for one person, another might feel that they’re consistently being ignored and overlooked.

Naturally, this will start to cause issues for you moving forward. If you were to surround yourself only with carbon copies of yourself, you’re going to struggle to see the bigger picture and hit large growth milestones as a business.

Confirmation Bias

This is a common issue in all aspects of life. It’s a hard and true fact, if we want something to be true, we’re more likely to believe it.

This might mean that we subconsciously form an image of people around what want or expect them to be, as opposed to how they actually are. This might mean that we’re recruiting for a new role we might overlook some red flags we spot in a candidate we feel an affinity with. Likewise, we might focus more on these same negative signs when speaking with a candidate we don’t have an affinity with.

Attribution Bias

Attribution bias often raises its head when we’re evaluating different members of our team. Oftentimes, we grace ourselves with more credit than we give others, instead of judging everyone by the same status.

Let’s imagine you’ve just closed a really big, lucrative deal for your business. You’ll likely be patting yourself on the back because without your charming personality and hard work there’s no way anyone else could have done such a good job.

Now let’s say your biggest work rival managed to do the same thing. Well, for them it was surely just good luck, right? All about who they know and not what they actually know.

In the workplace, this is the exact type of thinking we need to avoid. Wherever possible, you should stop categorising the people you work with into ‘us’ and ‘them’ boxes, as when we do it becomes a breeding garden for (often unwarranted) favouritism.

With anything happening in a business, be it positive or negative, we need to fairly consider the circumstances, luck and politics of a situation so that we’re not penalizing people simply because they’re different from us (or praising them because they’re too similar!).

Conformity Bias

The way we think about conformity bias is almost hand in hand with peer pressure. As social beings, we subconsciously do a lot of things that help us to fit in and go along with the crowd.

Conformity bias is just this. Imagine that you’re a part of an interview panel discussing potential candidates. You might think that Candidate 1 is an absolute stand-out, by far the best choice for the job. However, if the rest of the table is strongly leaning towards Candidate 2 it’s pretty likely that you’ll go along with what the group thinks rather than speak up.

The same issues can arise when you’re working on a group project. If a member of your group has a different opinion they might not want to voice their thoughts if they feel the rest have already made a decision.

How Leaders Can Tackle Unconscious Bias

A leader with unconscious bias can find themselves facing a number of issues.

A leader with unaddressed and obvious biases might be seen as being uncaring (or worse!). They’ll also potentially have issues with employee engagement levels and higher levels of staff turnover, which is bound to have a knock-on impact on business performance as a whole.

This is why it’s so important that they be addressed. Here are some key ways you can get started:

Challenge Your Own Thinking

The first step towards conquering your unconscious bias is to just even be aware of them!

When you feel yourself making a decision that might be being impacted by one of the elements above, try asking yourself: would you be coming to the same conclusion if a different colleague was involved? Maybe one that you had more on a natural affinity towards?

Be Actively Inclusive

If you ever notice any team members who aren’t participating as much as others, make an effort to include them and encourage them to add to the conversation – no matter what their opinions are!

When a leader shows that they’re open to, and excited by, hearing different perspectives team members it’s far more likely they’ll be happy to engage.

What’s more, when these people do start to speak up you might find that you tap into some magic ideas that you wouldn’t have ever uncovered otherwise.

Use Your Voice

It’s one thing to recognise bias in yourself, but the next step is all about speaking up when you see bias in others. Both leaders in a business and team members should feel like they can talk about bias and be able to share any concerns.

Make sure you have a process in place to talk through these things and don’t be afraid to raise new perspectives and viewpoints that may otherwise not be considered.

There you have it, our quick rundown of how you as a leader can help to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace. Don’t get us wrong, we’ve barely scratched the surface here.

This is a massive topic and unconscious bias training can be one of the toughest challenges an organisation faces.

That’s where we come in! At Zest, we offer a wide range of training to help you, and your team, become better leaders. As people performance specialists, we can help you really get down into the nitty-gritty and challenge the way you think, for the better.

Get in touch today to chat about how we can help! Drop an email to

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