ATD Blog

Impact of Unconscious Bias on Diversity and Inclusion

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What does the term unconscious bias really mean? Is it being prejudiced about an individual? Is it having a negative mindset about a group of people? In 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias, Sondra Thiederman defines a bias as “an inflexible, positive or negative, often unconscious belief about a particular group of people.” Other terms include hidden bias and implicit bias. Biases in the workplace can be barriers that not only prevent people from working together effectively, but also damage the development of inclusive relationships that foster creative and innovative ideas.

How do you counteract thinking in generalities and stereotypes? When you meet someone or start to work with a colleague, client, or a supplier, ask yourself this basic question: “What do I think, believe, and perceive about this person?” This question includes negative and positive perceptions.

Follow up your response with these additional questions to create a complete viewpoint of this person:

  • How long have I known this person and under what circumstances have I interacted with her?
  • Why do I think, believe, and perceive these characteristics about this person? What concrete evidence do I have about these qualities?

If your impression is based on firsthand observation and actual interactions, then you do not have biases regarding this person. Your impression is founded on facts. However, if it rests on assumptions, what other people have said, and generalities about a group that person belongs to, then most likely you have a prejudice. What productive steps can be taken to change your opinions about someone who, in some way, is different from you?

  • Develop the habit of deliberately becoming aware of any unconscious bias you may have regarding a person and the feelings that bias elicits, such as discomfort, uncertainty, or impatience.
  • As your awareness grows, your unconscious biases weaken and eventually disappear, replaced by trust, respect, value, and acceptance of that person as a benefit to your organization.
  • Start to truly accept diversity by reaching out to people—make the first move by extending your hand when you meet someone different from you. As you interact, look for commonalities—what experiences do you share, what similarities do you have?
  • Inclusion occurs when you welcome people that are different from you into your “work comfort zone,” collaborating to solve problems and issues to accomplish your organization’s goals and mission.

An important factor in committing to diversity is to admit that you are not very familiar with the culture, values, and practices of people whose backgrounds are not the same as yours. You need to be willing to learn and develop a clearer understanding of how their experiences affect their work styles, behavior, communications, and relationships. To accomplish this, you can:

  • Check with local print and social media resources to enroll in courses or attend lectures regarding different cultures and backgrounds.
  • Invite people individually to have coffee or lunch, saying that you would like the two of you to get to know each other better.
  • Participate in public multicultural celebration events.
  • Think about your neighbors, people in your physical fitness classes, hobby groups, and so on. What are the differences? Commonalities?

What other activities or actions can you become involved in for increased awareness and understanding of people with different experiences and background?

About the Author

Annabelle Reitman has more than 40 years of experience in career coaching and counseling, specializing in résumé development that targets clients’ individualized professional stories. She also does short-term coaching for people in work transitions, enabling them to successfully continue their career journey. Reitman is an established writer and author in the career and talent management arenas. She is a co-author of ATD's Career Moves (2013) and contributed the Take charge of Your Career: Breaking Into & Advancing in the T&D Profession Chapter to the  ASTD Handbook, 2nd edition (2014). Reitman holds doctorate and master’s degrees in higher education administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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