Unconscious bias or conscious excuse?

The idea of unconscious bias makes most people uncomfortable: our well-intentioned decisions flawed by prejudice beyond our control!

And even a deep understanding of the concept is not enough to combat it. You have to keep refreshing your view; actively challenge yourself and others; be receptive to other perspectives (not just defend your own). An organisation has to have a genuinely honest and open culture to achieve this. And when we are under pressure, conceding we may be wrong is not human nature.

There is a much greater awareness of unconscious bias which is progress - afterall, you have to identify something to be able to tackle it. Here is a good explanation of what unconscious bias is with some suggestions for effective ways of counteracting it:


Yet there is a risk that it becomes an excuse. If something is unconscious, how can you counteract it effectively? This is why awareness is not enough - it just becomes filed away under "useful to know" without changing the way we make decisions.


Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is to see awareness as a way of becoming conscious of the unconscious so you can actively tackle the prejudice. This confronts us with the choice: what are we going to do differently? It is a challenge to second guess our own judgement. As the Royal Society video says, often we can see other people's biases more easily than our own. We also cannot rid ourselves of the biases, we can only be vigilant to their influence.

Organisations can help this by promoting more reflective thinking. Often it is robust, quick decision makers who are prized. But slowing down decision making processes is one of the most effective counterbalances to biased thinking.

This is more than just an ethical issue. A client I've worked with recently did some analysis of the employees leaving its business 6-12 months after joining. Most commonly, their performance had not met expectations and they had moved on when this was made clear. Almost all of these employees had been recruited with little or no process based on personal recommendation - they seemed a "good fit". Yet these snap decisions had been flawed - most likely by an unconscious prejudice to recruit people "like us". This had cost the business hundreds of thousands in wasted agents fees. And that's before you factor in the unquantified amount of investment time inducting them and managing their performance.

A useful reminder that counteracting unconscious bias is a financial issue as well as the right thing to do.