The impact of our unconscious bias on diversity

Recently I’ve been really fortunate to work with a wide range of different health, social and voluntary care professionals exploring how they can work collaboratively to deliver person-centred care.  One thing that strikes me is the diversity of the group – different backgrounds, experiences, skills and views.  This “difference” can at times feel challenging as there are varying views on how to grapple with some very complex issues.  My positive mindset is that this difference will lead to greater innovation and creativity although it may feel tricky and uncomfortable at times.

As humans, we naturally like to fit in as part of a homogenous group meaning we can be cautious about sticking our necks out.  Having a workforce comprised of people with different backgrounds, experience and skills means ideas generated won’t be homogenous.  But there is something at play that adversely influences diversity of groups and the acceptance of those ideas – this is our unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, happens automatically, is outside of our control and triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. 

Based on our natural survival mechanism, our brain morphs situations and people into different groups without fully understanding or engaging with them, which leads us to make decisions about those groupings almost instantly.  And those quick decisions may not always be right and could lead us to miss out on new ideas or hearing an alternative perspective.  To mitigate against our unconscious bias, carefully consider the decisions you make rather than just making a decision because it “feels right” and take a brief moment to question your first impressions about someone – this could be a patient or a colleague.  Be aware that it can be useful to follow your “gut feel” but “check-in” by asking yourself to consider what logic or evidence may also be available or why you feel the way you do.

Let’s look at a couple of practical examples:

  1. Speaking up at a meeting:  Are there occasions where everyone nods in agreement or the group always supports a new idea?  Group Think may exist where our similarity and likeability of each other means we prefer not to disagree.  We want to conform to the rest of the group rather than be seen as the individual who has a different view.

    ALERT: Conformity Bias – this states that the more people do or believe something, the likelier others are to join them.  In fact, studies show that in the right circumstances, as much as 75% of people will give answers they know are false, simply because others around them have given the same incorrect answer.

    If you notice this, why don’t you take some time to give some feedback?  Or ask the group to consider alternative views.  Help people feel safe to share their thoughts without judgement.

  2. Allocating work: It sounds easy but identifying the right people in your team to delegate to involves a range of factors, including: checking availability, capacity and individual expertise.  Have you considered how your own unconscious bias may also influence your decision on who to allocate work to?

    ALERT: Contrast and recency bias – our last experience of a person or situation will strongly influence our next decision.

    If you had a negative experience with an individual, you may choose to work with someone else the next time or feel you can’t trust them.

    Before you jump to that decision, have you taken time to explore the situation?  Were there any reasons why the individual didn’t deliver to your expectations and have you had a discussion to understand and offer feedback?

    There are many situations where bias influences our day-to-day work.  Embracing difference is a fantastic starting point to developing new innovative ways of working and if you feel somewhat uncomfortable at times, check in to see if your unconscious bias may be influencing this at all.