Understanding implicit bias is one of the pillars of starting to practice inclusion. It is the first steppingstone to greater self-awareness, challenging problematic beliefs, and adopting more inclusive behaviors. In this post, I've listed five forms of bias that commonly impact professionals in the workplace: confirmation bias, halo effect, anchoring bias, attribution bias, and small numbers bias.
What Is Implicit Bias and Why Does it Matter?
If you are not already familiar, implicit bias is a natural phenomenon that results from our brain taking shortcuts. Over the course of our lives, we identify patterns and similarities, and then we learn to react or make decisions based on snap judgements of situations that seem similar to us. Implicit bias, therefore, refers to the automatic beliefs and assumptions we make based on our history, personal experiences, and exposure to social messages through things like media and entertainment.
As a result of taking these neurological shortcuts, we are liable to make inaccurate generalizations, almost always without even realizing it. This is problematic for a couple of reasons:
- Implicit bias causes us to act in discriminatory ways – as individuals, in the workplace, and as a society.
- Implicit bias builds on itself. When bias goes unchecked, it reinforces for others that non-inclusive behaviors are socially acceptable, creating a snowball effect and making it that much more difficult to identify and challenge.
So, the first step toward becoming a more inclusive team member is to understand the role of bias in influencing our actions. This self-awareness enables you to dig deeper into your personal prejudices, identify blind spots, and hone the skills to start adopting more inclusive behaviors.
Part of gaining the self-awareness that comes with learning about bias is recognizing that we do not always have the positive impact that we intend. As you read on, reflect on your own actions and decision-making processes and consider how these biases are affecting you.
Types of Implicit Bias
Understanding implicit bias can help you on your journey to developing the level of self-awareness needed to mitigate the potential negative effects of bias. While many forms of implicit bias exist, here are five common types:
- Confirmation Bias describes our tendency to interpret new evidence or recall information as a confirmation of pre-existing beliefs or ideas. It can manifest a number of different ways in the global workplace. For instance, a manager might fall victim to confirmation bias if they ignore responses from an internal survey stating that they are more productive on days when they come in at 9am instead of 8am. Rather than engage with the new information, they disregard it because it contradicts the way they believe is best to encourage productivity.
- The Halo Effect occurs when our impression of someone (or something) unconsciously influences our opinion of a different aspect of their character. In the business world, this bias often occurs during hiring and performance appraisals. For example, if a job candidate dresses elegantly for their interview, you might unconsciously assume that they are more skilled in their field than a candidate who dresses casually or has a stained shirt. To combat this bias and create an inclusive workspace, include diverse perspectives in the hiring process, and evaluate your reasoning before you make a final decision.
- Anchoring Bias occurs when we’re overly influenced by older information, or an “anchor,” when we interpret a new situation. This “anchor” is usually the first piece of information we hear, or what we are used to. If, for instance, your team wants to increase subscriptions to a local newspaper, they might focus on leveraging social media because of its broad reach. There are, however, many things that contribute to audience engagement, with social media just being one of them. This strategy may not be very effective, for example, if your primary demographic is older than 45. In this case, the "anchor" is the power of social media in today's society, causing the team not to consider other, more wide-reaching marketing options.
- Attribution Bias or Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to project negative traits onto someone when they make a mistake, rather than blaming the mistake on circumstances. In other words, we tend to justify our own mistakes by explaining the circumstances that led to it, but we are frequently not so generous with other people. This can lead us to wrongfully decide that someone is incompetent, lazy, or unprofessional without affording them appropriate consideration or compassion.
- Small Numbers Bias occurs when we overgeneralize about a group, culture, or society based on too little evidence. Let's say, for instance, that you work with three people who all enjoy heavy metal music, and none of them is very good at contributing new ideas during a brainstorm. Your brain may begin to form a connection between their taste in music and their lack of creativity. Even if such a correlation existed, observing it in three individuals is not nearly enough to make claims about such a pattern.
Of course, it's one thing to generalize based on taste in music, but this becomes highly problematic when we begin to draw these conclusions based on perceived patterns according to race, religion, gender, or other aspects of identity.
It's natural to feel uncomfortable when we start to learn about how bias affects us because it is unpleasant to think that we may be having a negative impact on others. But refusing to acknowledge our implicit biases only impedes us from having the impact we want. Remember, bias is in many ways a natural aspect of being human. We all have biases, and we will all make mistakes. What matters is what we choose to do about it.