Unconscious Bias: Dealing with Your Own

A father and son are in a car accident. They’re rushed to the hospital where the son is sent up to surgery. The surgeon walks in and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.”

What was your first reaction?

Did you guess the surgeon was the boy’s mother? If so, you solved the puzzle. Or perhaps you considered the possibility that the boy had two fathers who were parenting the son together. This also is a solution.

Or were you completely baffled? If so, you’re in good company. When people in recent studies heard the story, only one of five guessed that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother. In English, the word for surgeon doesn’t indicate whether that person is a man or woman, but in many people’s brains, there’s a faulty automatic link between the words “surgeon” and “male.”

These hidden biases are a normal part of being human. But here’s the essential thing to know: they can cause us to act out of sync with our conscious values. They produce blind spots that make it difficult to envision people in roles different from those we’ve automatically assigned them. They affect all our choices in subtle and sometimes disturbing ways. We may inflate an employee’s performance rating. We may overlook a talented person when there’s a job opening. We may not pursue a career that would, in fact, have been perfect for us. We may ignore a business venture that could have been a great success.

You can do your job better by understanding bias, uncovering some of your own biases and working to overcome them. These efforts will give you heightened self-awareness, more reliable decision-making skills and a greater capacity for collaboration.

So what can you do?

1. Acknowledge it.
A major step is to accept that unconscious bias exists—and that you’ve got it. At any given moment, you’re faced with 11 million pieces of information, but your brain can only process 40 of those bits at a time. So it creates shortcuts. Just acknowledging that you have unconscious bias is the first step to doing something about it.

2. Identify your biases.
Work to uncover your hidden assumptions as best you can. It can be upsetting to learn that you hold an unconscious preference for men…or younger people…or thin people…or people of your own race or ethnicity. But when you become aware of the processes going on in your mind, you can begin to counteract them.

3. Pause.
Slow down and think twice.

4. Question yourself.
Think through your decision-making process. Ask yourself things like: Why do I judge him to be more qualified? Why do I think she should get a higher score? Why do I think we should pass on this hire? And even: Why do I think I’m not capable of doing this? What is it about this opportunity that frightens me?

5. Seek out differences.
Spend time with people who are different from you—perhaps even people you might have biases against. When we hold a negative view of a group of people and then spend time with an individual who represents that group, there is a good chance our perspective will change.