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Published on June 30, 2020

What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good)

What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good)

Many conversations are being held nowadays regarding unconscious bias, but what does it really mean and how can it affect your life and the people around you? With many types of biases, it can get quite confusing. In this article, we’ll touch on cognitive bias, and then zero in on unconscious bias. Both types of biases have an immediate impact on your life because they relate to how you and others think about yourself and other people.

If you want to protect your relationships and make good decisions about other people, you need to know what these biases mean[1]. Once we have clarity about that, we can explore in more depth unconscious bias and how to address it[2].

Cognitive Bias

Let’s start with cognitive bias[3], a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the most likely way of reaching our goals[4].

These mental blind spots impact all areas of our life, from health to relationships and even shopping, as a study recently revealed[5]. In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want.

Cognitive biases have to do with judgment, not mood. Ironically, cognitive biases — such as the optimism bias and overconfidence effect — more often lead to positive moods. Of course, the consequence of falling into cognitive biases, once discovered, usually leaves us in a bad mood due to the disastrous results of these dangerous judgment errors.

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Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is different from cognitive bias. Also known as implicit bias, it refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on[6]. Despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns, these are two separate and distinct concepts.

Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains, while unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example, most people in the US don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.

Unconscious Bias and Discriminatory Behavior

Organizations often bring me in as a speaker on diversity and inclusion to address potential unconscious discriminatory behavior. When I share in speeches that black Americans suffer from police harassment and violence at a much higher rate than white people, some participants (usually white) occasionally try to defend the police by claiming that black people are more violent and likely to break the law than whites. They thus attribute police harassment to the internal characteristics of black people (implying that it is deserved), and not to the external context of police behavior.

In reality – as I point out in my response to these folks – research shows that black people are harassed and harmed by police at a much higher rate for the same kind of activity. A white person walking by a cop, for example, is statistically much less likely to be stopped and frisked than a black one[7].

At the other end of things, a white person resisting arrest is much less likely to be violently beaten than a black one. In other words, statistics show that the higher rate of harassment and violence against black Americans by police is due to the prejudice of the police officers, at least to a large extent[8].

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However, I am careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes, it indeed is deliberate, with white police officers consciously believing that black Americans deserve much more scrutiny than whites. At other times, the discriminatory behavior results from unconscious, implicit thought processes that the police officer would not consciously endorse[9].

After becoming aware that unconscious bias does exist, the next step would be learning how to recognize it in order to reduce it. I’ve outlined three crucial points to keep in mind below while further exploring the unconscious prejudice discussed above.

How to Reduce Unconscious Bias

Remember these three important points if you want to work on reducing your unconscious bias.

1. Unconscious Bias is a Systemic Issue

When we understand that unconscious bias is ultimately a systemic issue, we understand that internal cultures need to be checked and addressed first.

Interestingly, research shows that many black police officers have an unconscious prejudice against other black people, perceiving them in a more negative light than white people when evaluating potential suspects. This unconscious bias carried by many — not all — black police officers helps show that such prejudices come – at least to a significant extent – from internal cultures within police departments, rather than pre-existing racist attitudes present before someone joins a police department.

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Such cultures are perpetuated by internal norms, policies, and training procedures, and any police department wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than attributing racism to individual officers.

In other words, instead of saying it’s a few bad apples in a barrel of overall good ones, the key is recognizing that unconscious bias is a systemic issue, and the structure and joints of the barrel needs to be fixed[10].

2. There Is No Shame in Unconscious Bias

Another crucial thing that needs to be highlighted is that there is no shame or blame in unconscious bias as it’s not stemming from any fault in the individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight defensive response among reluctant audiences, helping them hear and accept the issue.

Unconscious bias is prevalent and often doesn’t match our conscious values. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs and prejudices stemming from our tendency to categorize people into social groups. This developed naturally as a way for our ancestors to quickly size up a possible threat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate well in modern life.

3. It Takes a Sustained Effort to Prevent and Protect Against Unconscious Bias

After being presented with additional statistics and discussion of unconscious bias, the issue is generally settled. Still, from their subsequent behavior it’s clear that some of these audience members don’t immediately internalize this evidence. It’s much more comforting for their gut reactions to believe that police officers are right and anyone targeted by police deserves it; in turn, they are highly reluctant to accept the need to focus more efforts and energy on protecting black Americans from police violence due to the structural challenges facing these groups.

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The issue of unconscious bias doesn’t match their intuitions, so they reject this concept, despite extensive and strong evidence for its pervasive role in policing. It takes a series of subsequent follow-up conversations and interventions to move the needle. A single training is almost never sufficient, both in my experience and according to research[11].

Conclusion

The examples and points raised illustrate broader patterns you need to follow to recognize unconscious bias. Only by doing so will you be able to determine if, and what type of, intervention is needed to address it.

Unfortunately, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgment choices when we simply follow our intuitions. Unconscious biases are systemic and need to be addressed in order to make the best decisions[12].

We need to learn about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias. Then, you need to develop the right mental habits to help you make the best choices[13]. A one-time training is insufficient for doing so. It takes a long-term commitment and constant discipline and efforts to overcome unconscious bias, so get started now.

More Tips on Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Featured photo credit: M.T ElGassier via unsplash.com

Reference

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Published on July 29, 2020

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

Have you been thinking of how you can be a more strategic leader during these uncertain times? Has the pandemic thrown a wrench at all your carefully laid out plans and initiatives?

You’re not alone. The truth is, we all want some stability in our careers and teams during this disruptive pandemic.

However, this now requires a bit more effort than before and making the leap from merely surviving to thriving means buckling down to some serious strategic thinking and maintaining a determined mindset.

Is There a Way to Thrive Despite These Disruptions?

Essentially – yes, although you need to be willing to put in the work. Every leader wants to develop strategic thinking skills so that they can enhance overall team performance and boost their company’s success, but what exactly does it mean to be strategic in the context of the times we live in?

If you happen to be in a leadership position in your organization right now, you are most probably navigating precarious waters given the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There’s a lot more pressure than before because your actions and decisions will have a much greater impact these days not just on you, but also to the people who are part of your team.

Companies often bring me in to coach executives on strategic thinking and planning. And while pre-pandemic I would usually start by highlighting the advantages of strategic thinking, nowadays, I always begin these Zoom coaching sessions by driving home the point that this pandemic has now made strategic thinking not just an option but an absolute must.

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Assessing and making plans through the lens of a good strategy might require significant work at first. Nevertheless, you can take comfort in the fact that the rewards will far outweigh the effort, as you’ll soon see after following the 8 strategic steps I have outlined below.

8 Steps to Strategic Thinking

As events unfold during these strange times, you’re bound to feel wrong-footed every now and then. Being a leader during this pandemic means preparing for more change not just for you, but for your whole team as well.

As states and cities go through a cycle of lockdowns and reopening, employees will experience the full gamut of human emotions in dizzying speed, and you will often be called on to provide insight and stability to your team and workplace.

Strategic thinking is all about anticipation and preparation. Rather than expending your energy merely helping your company put out fires and survive, you can put the time to better use by charting out a solid plan that can protect and help you and your company thrive.

Take the following steps to build solid initiatives and roll out successful projects:

Step 1: Step Back, Then Set the Scope

One of the things that leaders get wrong during their first attempt at strategic thinking is expecting that it is just another item on a checklist. The truth is, you need to take a good, long look at the bigger picture before anything else. This means decisively prioritizing and stepping away from tasks that can be delegated to others. Free up your schedule so you can focus on this crucial task at hand.

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Then, proceed with setting the scope and the strategic goals of the project or initiative you plan to build or execute. Ask yourself the bigger question of why you need to embark on a particular project and when would be the right time to do so.

You need to set a timeline as well, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years. Keep in mind that your projections will deteriorate the further out you go as you make longer-term plans.

For this reason, add extra resources, flexibility, and resilience if you have a longer timeline. You should also be making the goals less specific if you’re charting it out for the longer term.

Step 2: Make a List of Experts

Make and keep a list of credible people who can contribute solid insight and feedback to your initiative. This could range from key stakeholders to industry experts, mentors, and even colleagues who previously planned and rolled out similar projects.

Reach out to the people on this list regularly while you work through the steps to bring diverse insight into your planning process. This way, you will be able to approach any problem from every angle.

Bringing key stakeholders into this initial process will also display your willingness to listen and empathize with their issues. In return, this will build trust and potentially pave the way for smoother buy-in down the line.

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Step 3: Anticipate the Future

After identifying your goals and gathering feedback, it’s time to consider what the future would look like if everything goes as you intuitively anticipate. Then, lay out the kind and amount of resources (money, time, social capital) that might be needed to keep this anticipated future running.

Step 4: Brainstorm on Potential Internal and External Problems

Next, think of how the future would look if you encountered unexpected problems internal and external to the business activity that seriously jeopardize your expected vision of the future. Write out what kind of potential problems you might encounter, including low-probability ones.

Assess the likelihood that you will run into each problem. To gauge, multiply the likelihood by the number of resources needed to address the problem. Try to convert the resources into money if possible so that you can have a single unit of measurement.

Then, think of what steps you can take to address these internal and external problems before they even happen. Write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Lastly, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different possible problems and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

Step 5: Identify Potential Opportunities, Internal and External

Imagine how your expected plan would look if unexpected opportunities came up. Most of these will be external but consider internal ones as well. Then, gauge the likelihood of each scenario and the number of resources you would need to take advantage of each opportunity. Convert the resources into money if possible.

Then, think of what steps you can take in advance to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Finally, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different unexpected opportunities and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

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Step 6: Check for Cognitive Biases

Check for potential cognitive biases that are relevant to you personally or to the organization as a whole, and adjust the resources and plans to address such errors.[1] Make sure to at least check for loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effects.

Step 7: Account for Unknown Unknowns (Black Swans)

To have a more effective strategy, account for black swans as well. These are unknown unknowns -unpredictable events that have potentially severe consequences.

To account for these black swans, add 40 percent to the resources you anticipate. Also, consider ways to make your plans more flexible and secure than you intuitively feel is needed.

Step 8: Communicate and Take the Next Steps

Communicate the plan to your stakeholders, and give them a heads up about the additional resources needed. Then, take the next steps to address the unanticipated problems and take advantage of the opportunities you identified by improving your plans, as well as allocating and reserving resources.

Finally, take note that there will be cases when you’ll need to go back and forth these steps to make improvements, (a fix here, an improvement there) so be comfortable with revisiting your strategy and reaching out to your list of experts.

Conclusion

A great way to deal with feelings of uncertainty during this pandemic is to anticipate obstacles with a good plan – and a sure road to that is practicing strategic thinking.

In the coming months and years, you’ll need to continue navigating uncharted territory so that you can lead your team to safe waters. Regularly doing these 8 steps to strategic thinking will ensure that you can prepare for and adapt  to the coming changes with increasing clarity, perspective, and efficiency.[2]

More on Thinking Smarter

Featured photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM via unsplash.com

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