How to avoid unconscious bias in a feedback conversation

Human beings are extremely judgemental creatures. Harsh but true. We make impressions on people, events and things, often within the first fifteen seconds of coming into contact with them. We form opinions and tell ourselves stories that become reality in our minds.

We often credit this to intuition or a claim to have good judge of character. Sometimes, we are right. Sometimes we are not. Sometimes, the judgement is tainted by our experiences, fixed ideas and unconscious bias.

But it’s the opinions we form and the stories we tell ourselves that can become dangerous. Because sometimes, just sometimes, even after we have become more acquainted with the person, event or thing, these opinions and stories stick in our subconscious, even if they prove to be false. We remain wedged in the bias.

Herein lies one of the fundamental flaws of the human psyche. And the workplace is no exception to this rule.

The thing is, managers and leaders are first and foremost humans and are not exempt from this. But to be an effective and fair manager, we want to separate ourselves from this pitfall and manage, inspire and lead without bias, either conscious or unconscious. So how do we ensure we don’t get sucked into the zone of stereotyping but instead embrace attributes that promote inclusivity and diversity?


What is unconscious bias?

According to the 2008 Diversity Best Practices: Proven Strategies for Addressing Unc..., "unconscious or hidden beliefs – attitudes and biases beyond our regular perceptions of ourselves and others – underlie a great deal of our patterns of behaviour about diversity."

Unconscious bias is prejudice towards someone or something that occurs without our awareness. It is cruel because it can raise its ugly head against the most basic of attributes that a person cannot actually control, including race, gender, age, social class and even looks: elements that, even if given feedback on, cannot be changed or developed. What’s worse, unconscious bias wires the brain to lean all feedback towards one direction. In this instance, the individual can do no right or the individual can only do right, otherwise known as the halo effect.


Unconscious bias is prejudice towards someone or something that occurs without our awareness.


A small number of jobs may require a particular gender, look or type, for example, acting roles. But this type of discrimination should hold no place in the corporate world.

The unfortunate thing is, despite how unbiased we believe ourselves to be, we may still harbour subconscious negative opinions about those who exist outside our own cultural or social circles. This means that some of us have been victims to it and some of us have been victims of it. This type of judgement stems from distrust of the unfamiliar and has its roots embedded in ignorance and lack of emotional awareness. The more exposed we are to other cultures, ages and groups of people, the more we understand and accept these differences as the norm and the less likely we are to promote prejudice against them.

Growing and nurturing our Emotional Intelligence and emotional awareness is a good start to curbing unconscious bias. When developing our Emotional Intelligence and emotional awareness, it is also important to understand the halo effect and how it may lead to unconscious bias.


The halo effect

On the flip side to negative prejudice, the halo effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when our overall favourable impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences our feelings and thoughts about that entity's character or properties.


the halo effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when our overall favourable impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences our feelings and thoughts about that entity's character or properties.


This type of bias leads to favouritism sometimes occurring in authority figures to those they supervise, for instance, student-teacher, parent-child and employee-manager relationships. The halo effect could lead to instances where the subordinate, whether student, child or employee, can do no wrong.

This type of managing can in fact be detrimental to the subordinate’s growth and development: firstly because it builds a warped sense of self-esteem and secondly, because the authority figure may be incapable of giving any necessary constructive feedback – all feedback is and will be good.

What’s more, equipping the subordinate with such a distorted sense of self-esteem sets them up for failure when they have to assimilate with other groups. The repercussion of which is also damaging because they will in turn continue to practise their behaviours. They will also continue to expect only positive feedback from others they come into contact with.

And so the cycle continues.


Training your mind to operate without bias

So how can we, as professionals and leaders, ensure we steer away from unconscious bias? Let’s consider this using the scenario of feedback, and even performance review, conversations.

Start with these basic foundations:

  1. Identify: Know your own biases and what triggers them. Start by shining a spotlight on the biases, preferences and beliefs that set you off. Only then can you do something to influence a different outcome. Researchers at Harvard, Virginia and Washington universities have collaborated on and created an online tool that can help you do just that. As its name suggests, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) aims to measure the implicit associations a person has between concepts, for instance, race, gender, sexuality, or even disability. The tool also measures how a person evaluates stereotypes, such as whether they believe these concepts are good or bad.
  2. Develop: Brush up on the skills that will enable you to be more culturally and emotionally aware. Expose yourself to situations where you are forced outside of your comfort zone to interact and connect with others from different walks of life. Commit yourself to experiential learning and role-playing to shift mindset and encourage behavioural change.
  3. Focus: Focus on the equality of people and their skills and talents, not on superficial traits like how they look or where they come from. For instance, if you were faced with two candidates, equally capable of each other, with equivalent skills, experience and expertise to match, and you had the right to choose one for a major career-changing project, how ethical would it be if you chose the one with better looks and charm, and justified that to reflect ‘meeting the culture’? One could ask what culture exactly would you be you cultivating?
  4. Stick to the facts: Do not confuse empathy and compassion with unconscious bias. Keep account of the facts and data of each event, performance, occurrence or result. If you don’t have enough data, gather the information and details you need. Be sure to gather data from all relevant and contributing parties, not just one source.
  5. Listen: To approach anything, especially a feedback conversation, from a fair and balanced perspective, listen to what is being said rather than making assumptions based on impressions and notions you have already formed in your mind. And stop yourself from looking for language you think or feel should match the story you have already formed in your mind.
  6. Ask questions: Ask as many questions as you can. Seek to really understand the situation. Asking questions is a far cry better than making assumptions that could lead to unconscious bias. Or worse, to reinforce and feed an already unhealthy unconscious bias.


Why is it important to be a leader who avoids unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias results in behaviours that are based on pre-conceived, and often, false stereotypes. Such behaviours create conflict, segregate others, nurture disrespect, build resentment and hold talent back. This will not create a positive culture, thriving environment to work in, or a flourishing, collaborative team to work with.

Make no mistake. No matter how we rename it or label it, unconscious bias is discrimination. And research has shown that discrimination in the workplace breeds depressiondisengagement and a toxic environment.

For these reasons, it is vital that good managers and leaders practise the opposite of unconscious bias, which is actively and consciously embracing inclusivity and diversity. Start with the basic foundations and take them into all your conversations with those you manage and lead, including those feedback and performance review conversations that drive high performance, which make up two of the most important types of conversations in any person’s career.

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