• Nick Myles

What is Unconscious Bias? Friend or foe?

We are consciously able to process 40 - 50 pieces of information per minute. Before reading on, see if you can guess how many pieces of information we are able to process unconsciously ... (Gooooo on, humour me) ...


... 11 million.

Yeh, 11 MILLION!! That means that when you were coming into work this morning on your daily commute, worrying about getting a seat, checking social media, weighing up whether you should have yet another coffee, your subconscious brain was filtering, sorting and storing up to 11 million sensory stimuli. Quite frankly after such a stonking effort, your grey matter deserves that coffee.

The reason that we have this secret superpower to unconsciously take on extraordinary amounts information has to do with our evolution. As early humans we lived in a dangerous and volatile world. The ability to recognise patterns and act accordingly kept us alive.

The snap of a twig, the rustle of leaves, the sudden lack of birdsong - all of these things could have been the difference between fight and flight, live or die. And only the quickest survive. The quicker we could make decisions based on instinct, the more chance we would survive - and what quicker way to do this than to avoid complex thought processes altogether. We developed the ability to let our subconscious do some of the hard work so our conscious could get on with more important things like discovering fire and inventing the wheel.

So how does this ability, this unconscious bias towards taking certain actions and making certain decisions based on 'instinct' apply to our modern day workplace? Is unconscious bias our friend or foe?

What are your first impression of our friend in the picture above? If you had to make assumptions about him based on this picture alone what would you say? To me, he seems smart, meticulous, confident - perhaps a little arrogant. It's only until I question why I have these first impressions that I am able to confront by unconscious biases. His appearance (glasses - this is something I unconsciously associate with intelligence), his body language (looking out of shot, not making eye contact with me - something my brain unconsciously interprets as arrogance), maybe even the colour of his coat, the trim of his beard. The list goes on, but the point is this; we can't help making unconscious observations of people, it's something we automatically do (it's unconscious after all) but if we act on these unconscious impressions, thoughts and feelings, what then?

This is when unconscious bias becomes our enemy, when we don't give someone an opportunity or we make a decision about someone based on 'feeling' or 'instinct', not data and facts. Yes it helped keep us safe in dangerous environments but it has no place in a fair and equal workplace (free from warring tribes and sabre tooth tigers).

Ultimately the impact is this; if decision makers in your organisation are able to identify and confront their unconscious biases (we all have them) it leads to opportunities taken up based on merit, talent and sucess.

If you are a leader or decision maker in the workplace you may want read our other blog on influencing skills here.

Our drama based workshops give participants the opportunity to put theory into practice and gain confidence in overcoming obstacles through experience. For more info on our experiential approach to training, visit www.differentduck.co.uk.

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