Breaking the habit of unconscious bias

13 May 2021 by Annamaria Testani
Photo of a collage of paper faces with different colors representing diversity

By Annamaria Testani, Senior Vice President, National Bank Investments 

First impressions count, and this is an unconscious bias. In today’s fast-paced world where time is money and people are sadly more expendable than ever, jumping to snap judgments can cost us valuable relationships and opportunities—in the business world and beyond.

Through my own experiences, I have learned that unconscious biases have influenced how I communicated with my teams, my clients and even my personal network. To share my experience and try to help my peers reflect on their perceptions and grow, I built workshops on topics like active listening and unconscious biases that can influence relationships. We have seen our approach improve, and there are many advantages to being more aware and trying to shift our approach to a more conscious one. 

The benefits of checking our biases at the door 

We’d all like to build more equitable workplaces, but positive intent alone doesn’t equal change. In order to truly change our work culture, I think that we need to ask tough questions, demand data, and implement processes that will lead to different outcomes. In my opinion, change also needs to happen from the ground up—starting with our employees, the foundation of any business. 

I have learned that, when we encourage our employees to become more aware of their biases, we help create a more tolerant and inclusive workplace. It tends to help them develop stronger listening skills. It usually leads to more diverse thinking as employees feel less judged, and therefore more willing to speak up, share ideas, and take risks. It leads to better collaboration and corporate creativity. And from what I have seen, it results in improved commitment, loyalty and performance—which, in turn, helps boost the success of the entire company. 

It's also part of the company's role to develop training sessions and to go further by implementing mentoring sessions to engage the employee and dig into areas where they are uncomfortable. It is when people are challenged (in a good way) that they learn the most. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. Taking the steps to eliminate unconscious bias has a positive impact on future employees and customers, too. 

We have seen that changing the recruitment process while being aware of the recruiter and the manager’s unconscious biases attracts higher-quality talent and job candidates who share the company’s values. We also foster greater diversity and parity in terms of race, gender, age and more, which leads to complementary visions that are reflected in their work and creativity.

Regarding customers, we help them feel heard and understood while forging stronger long-term relationships. We create more opportunities as customers become ambassadors for your business based on their own positive experiences. 

The curse of unconscious bias 

To better understand unconscious bias (and why it’s so deeply engrained in our culture), we first have to look at the root cause. Unconscious bias is something we all share. Our brains sort and process information by taking shortcuts, and they’ve been operating this way for millions of years. We’re programmed to make judgments and to put people and situations into boxes, most of the time without even realizing we’re doing it. 

Unconscious biases tend to extend far beyond the usual culprits of racism, sexism and ageism in our society. For example, there’s affinity bias, where we gravitate towards those similar to ourselves in terms of gender, socioeconomic status, education level, and so on. Then there’s confirmation bias, where we tend to seek out cues and data that support our preconceived notions. The list goes on and on. And most of us are oblivious to the fact that we carry around these biases.  

The good news? By becoming aware of our biases and taking concrete steps to tackle them, everybody benefits.  

Tangible steps to reduce workplace bias 

Here are four concrete steps I have identified that we can all take to recognize and overcome our unconscious biases, starting now:    

Step 1: Accept that biases exist

We all have biases. It’s human nature. And the sooner we admit to them, the sooner we can start to fix them. Take the time to observe your thoughts and behaviours. Try to notice when familiar judgments crop up—and think twice before you voice or act on them. 

Step 2: Cultivate curiosity 

One of the best ways to build strong, lasting connections with your employees and customers is to take the time to get to know them. Be inquisitive, ask questions, and avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions based solely on first impressions. All of a sudden, you’ve created a learning opportunity for you, while making your customer feel heard and understood. 

Step 3: Retrain your brain  

Once you get into the habit of noticing when judgments and biases creep up, you can start to adapt and actually retrain your brain to think differently. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone and approach new people. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes (or apologize if you get it wrong).

Step 4: Apply filters 

Instead of relying on gut instinct and trusting old beliefs, try planting new ideas and practices in your brain. One rule I’ve set for myself is that I have to meet a person three times in three different contexts before I can form an opinion about them. 

Shifting the pendulum 

The world will never be completely free of bias. But by raising our awareness, educating ourselves and those around us, and implementing strategies to overcome our biases, we start to shift the pendulum in the right direction and inspire real change.

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