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Unconscious bias: It all starts with awareness

Unconscious bias: It all starts with awareness

June 2, 2016 by Stella Petrou Concha

Back in 1915, Sigmund Freud outlined how the unconscious mind works. While much of our personality (our ego and super ego) exists in consciousness, there are depths that we have no real awareness of – the ID and large parts of the super ego.

Freud compared the ratio to an iceberg, with the largest part of it hiding below the surface. Or, as Freud himself put it: “The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.”

“The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.”

That doesn’t mean the lower portions are redundant; the hidden depths of our psyche decide things for us each and every day, we just don’t know it.

This is usually all fine, until it starts to play a part in how business leaders and employees make some decisions. Unconscious bias is very real, and it can drastically affect team dynamics.

Unconscious bias in action

One of the most common examples of unconscious bias comes when hiring. People may have stereotypes and prejudices that they’re unaware and unconsciously ashamed of, though it doesn’t stop them overlooking ideal candidates because they are, say, female, disabled or of a different ethnicity.

Obviously it’s not an ideal situation. If you’re looking to hire someone for an executive job, you’ll want the biggest talent pool possible from which to cast your recruitment net, and you won’t have it with unconscious bias playing a part.

CareerBuilder’s 2015 Candidate Behaviour Study also discovered that 54 per cent of employers have been finding been increasingly difficult to hire qualified candidates over the past five years, and our unknown bias could be a legitimate reason.

The mind is amazing, so take some time to understand how it unconsciously makes decisions for you.
Awareness of your amazing mind is the first step to confronting unconscious bias.

Confronting unconscious bias

Unconscious bias doesn’t just hamper recruitment activities; it could ruin client relationships or lead to conflict in the workplace. It is counterintuitive for a professional’s personal branding, and leads to costly decisions. Confronting it is an increasingly important issue, and one that some of the biggest brands in the world are facing up to.

The UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US found that there are more than 150 identified unconscious biases, so it’s not something that can be wiped out with the wave of a wand.

However, it all starts with understanding that you are likely to have some level of it, and it will probably be forcing you into making bad decisions.

As UNC reported, biases could involve: “skin colour, gender, age, height, weight, introversion versus extroversion, marital and parental status, disability status, foreign accents, where someone went to college, and more. If you can name it, there is probably an unconscious bias for it.”

It’s certainly not an easy thing to admit or correct, but making better business decisions starts with self-awareness. Is it something you could improve upon?


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