5 ways to combating unconscious bias

The measures you should be taking to ensure bias-free managing

The growth of employees’ career and skills development is heavily reliant on and influenced by their managers, who serve as both a means of growth and advancement and professional gatekeepers. 

Manager feedback is critical to employees’ happiness and development. In fact, a study by the University of Warwick found that happiness leads to a 12% increase in productivity.

Every team member must understand how they are performing, what areas they need to improve, and what they need to do to reach their professional goals. Regular, structured feedback significantly improves employees’ engagement and productivity, with data showing that employees are four times more likely to be engaged in their work after receiving meaningful feedback.

However, providing this kind of feedback is not as straightforward as it may seem. Unconscious bias resides in each of us and is one of the key causes for different employees working under the same manager to encounter drastically different managerial styles and outcomes.

Bias has been around for centuries, deeply ingrained, and regularly reinforced in our daily lives. Unconscious biases, while unintentional, are learned stereotypes that affect our behaviour and practices. The breadth of these issues goes well beyond surface-level prejudice. Unconscious bias is a constant, happening all the time, and it affects all of us.

So, how can we combat unconscious bias? The trouble arises when we remain unaware and do not recognise when bias manifests as a microaggression. While it may seem impossible to overcome years of deeply ingrained stereotypes, there are measures we can take to curb unconscious bias.

Five steps to remove bias from your day-to-day management

Step 1: Be intentional

You need to recognise where your biases stem from, lest you risk bringing them with you into employee interactions. However, being aware of your unconscious bias does not necessarily mean it is any less ingrained within your daily management style.

Be intentional in the way you interact with and support co-workers and employees. Always consider how you approach manager-employee interactions, from providing feedback and delegating duties to considering promotions.

Intentionality requires forethought and consideration, with less dependence on instinct. Relying too heavily on your gut opens the door for unconscious bias to creep back in.

Step 2: Seek other perspectives

You cannot always rely on your intuition. Intuition has its time and place, and with employee-manager relations, you risk flawed thinking. How can you be sure of your thoughts if you have never sought a fresh perspective? You must challenge your own outlook to gain a better understanding of a situation.

Removing your views – and potential bias – allows you to free yourself from a self-contained viewpoint and see the larger picture. That way, nobody you work with has to experience the effects of your biases and potential microaggressions.

Step 3: Build a safe space for open communication

We all have unconscious biases, so managers must create a safe space where the team can acknowledge their limitations in perspective, judgement-free.

Employees who feel uncomfortable are reluctant to express their honest opinions. You must foster a trusting, collaborative working environment where open dialogue is encouraged for a better sharing of perspectives. Harnessing a culture of openness provides employees with the safety to offer the critical feedback they need.

We recommend conducting weekly 1-1s with all your team members to create a consistent and reliable safe space where employees can express their true feelings. Don’t simply ask how your employees are; prepare for the meeting, ask intentional questions, take notes, and refer back to past conversations week-on-week. Show you care: don’t assume it’s obvious.

A recent study found that organisations with a higher focus on employees’ psychological safety see a 76% increase in engagement and a 29% increase in employees’ overall life satisfaction. So, not only will nurturing a safe environment help tackle unconscious bias, but it will also ultimately promote a happier workplace and enhance team performance.

Step 4: Use data

Tools are available for assessing where your unconscious biases lie and tracking employees’ moods and engagement levels. Using the data gathered, you are better prepared to understand how unconscious bias may present itself and how to address the situation.

The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a valuable tool for gauging levels of bias. The IAT aims to measure implicit or unconscious bias based on a wide range of factors, from race to gender, religion, and more.

Data covers your blind spots, encouraging objective decision-making over intuition-based reasoning. Opening a dialogue around unconscious bias helps tackle stigma head-on, and using reliably sourced data furthers this conversation, promoting a foundation for growth and learning.

Step 5: Remain alert

No one is exempt from having bias, and having bias doesn’t make you a terrible manager or a bad person. However, it is crucial to recognise any potential biases and remain alert to any areas where those biases impact how you manage.

Although there is no way to prevent unconscious bias completely, promoting awareness and actively attempting to reduce such occurrences encourages a more adaptive and inclusive management style.

Does unconscious bias training work?

Unconscious bias training within the workplace can be effective, but only if it is ongoing. Long-term behaviours, perceptions, and stereotypes cannot be changed in a day, especially if cultivated over a lifetime.

The most successful unconscious bias training does more than raise awareness; proper training teaches the team how to manage biases and change their behaviours accordingly, all while tracking progress.

To ensure effective training, you must implement measures to assess incremental changes. Creating a starting point lets you track where training has been successful and which areas require further improvement. Progress is critical in managing unconscious bias – if you don’t check in on progression, there is no accountability for enacting change.

Reducing the risk of unconscious bias seeping into your workplace is a long-term commitment and requires structural changes and policy revisions. With the correct tools and strategies in place, alongside solid motivation and support, managers can create an inclusive working environment where everyone feels a sense of belonging.

By Sathya Smith, CEO and Founder of Piper.

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