The not so subtle effect of unconscious bias on decision skills

While I was sitting at the bus stop the other day, an elderly lady wearing a black head scarf sat down beside me.

She was clutching a rope of rosary beads, wearing more than an occasional crucifix and was manhandling a large bag of dry cat food too big for her single-use plastic carry bag.

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After a while she turned to me, smiled sweetly (for what felt like an otherworldly long time), and then said with a heavy European accent;

“I have a message from Jesus for you".

"He doesn't like your long hair.”

She then went on to explain how using multiple marks of the cross on your clothing, can help keep you in the good books with the divine, so to speak.

It happens more than you think

Now sadly, this is nothing new for me.

I've worn long hair throughout my professional career in financial services, made possible I’m sure by running my own business for over 20+ years. But the long locks constantly attract attention and comments, so I've become used to being a center of a comment.

Every time I go to the barber for a trim, undoubtedly the first question their staff member will ask is, ‘So how long have you been growing your hair for…?’

Internally my standard answer is, "Ever since I was born."

But externally it sounds more like, “Oh, for around 20 years now.”

The important questions rarely get asked, directly

You see, I know the questions they ask is really not about the length of my hair.

It’s really about something else.

Do people still accept you in your work enviroment?

How does the corporate world react to you?

What does it feel like when you wear a suit and tie all day with long hair?

What do other people say about you?

Do they still take you seriously?

Should you really look like that with the type of job you do?

And why do you have such long hair when everyone around you has short hair?

You could say I've learned the subtle art of understanding when you stand out in a crowd, people habitually wonder what it feels like, not to be part of a crowd.

And true to human nature, they usually end up making their initial decisions about you - some consciously others unconsciously - based upon your external appearance.

Excuse me, your bias is showing

We all naturally rely upon our unconscious bias to make most of our daily routine decisions. From breathing to eating to who not to sit next to on the train. It saves us time thinking about small decisions so we can focus on priority decisions. To be a little more specific, biases are the unconscious tendencies we seemingly all display that influence the way we think, act, see the world around us and the people in it.

Rational thought is rarer than you’d think

Unconscious biases have a direct impact upon our teams, their security, productivity, and your overall business success too.

Unconsciously, biases also feed off our ignorance, fears, uncertainties, and personal prejudices. Now if these unconscious thoughts were left in the unconscious realm, you might fairly ask, ‘so what?’

But our unconscious is anything but silent when it comes to our decision-making process.

Subtle bias (and even covert prejudice) affects our interactions in the workplace and usually translates into discriminatory behaviors, lost opportunities, misallocated resources, wasted efforts, and the inevitable erosion of our culture and ability to out-think our competition.

It’s that last position, 'out-thinking our competition' I want to explore.

Losing our competitive advantage

Today, many businesses have access to the same technology, same talent pool, and the same best practices as each other.

When we stop and consider our position in the market, many of our processes and systems are as good as our competitors. And many of our products are equally so similar, it's getting harder to define our own competitive advantage.

Perhaps our only remaining competitive difference may be our ability to make better decisions.

If this is the case, what affects our ability to make these better decisions, to out-think our competition so to speak, requires our focus.

Subtle bias has not so subtle effects on our employees

Blatant discrimination gets in the way of clear rational thought - no argument there.

While obvious discriminations are easy to see and deserve our immediate attention, the more subtle ones are harder to see (especially in ourselves) and require our constant vigilance.

We need to actively manage subtle workplace bias and other micro-aggressions because in today's workplaces, we’re more likely to encounter subtle biases rather than their blatant counterparts. And like the growing environmental soup of micro-plastics now floating in our oceans and entering our food chain through contaminated seafood, these small and subtle biases equally contaminate our team's decision-making abilities.

Why unconscious bias is unusually effective


Subtle bias attacks a very human trait.

The most human of all traits is our constant effort to ‘try and understand why people treat us the way they do’.

And we do this constantly - like breathing, maintaining our situational awareness, preparing for fight or flight responses - acting as our ‘danger detector’. It helps us quickly categorise others as either threat, neutral or positive.

  • It’s this continual internal monitoring of our place in the world around us (some might call it hypervigilance) that can significantly deplete our already limited emotional and cognitive resources.
  • To have this internal monitoring constantly in a state of uncertainty and turmoil affects our decision-making skills and capacities at a very deep level. The resulting uncertainty is corrosive because people begin to spend a lot more time, energy, and focus trying to figure out ‘why people treat us the way they do,’ so they can determine if there’s an unconscious threat that demands a response.

Due to its frequency and ever-presentness, subtle bias and discrimination is usually more stressful than deliberate blatant discrimination.

Much like a persistent low-level flue infection, the constant subtle effects combine to weaken people's internal resources that finally end in a fractured decision-making process and disengagement from their job.

Our team's thinking and responses become contaminated and their decision-making process diminished. And if your only competitive edge is in your ability to ‘out-think your competition’, you now have a structural problem and looming decision fatigue.

This is why workplace bullying is akin to metastasizing cancer within a vulnerable workplace culture.

How to start managing subtle bias

The first steps are;

  • Acknowledge the real possibility you could be operating more in a level of bias in a particular decision than you’d like to be.
  • Build deliberate primers into your decision-making systems to help you focus.

Priming happens when one activity subtly (and usually unconsciously), impacts the following behaviors. For me, eating chocolate triggers my need for coffee and vice versa. You could say one behavior primes the other.

The good news is the process of priming can be applied in a positive way - priming people to look for potential areas of bias and become more conscious of their decision-making processes.

Judge your own behaviour first

I’m often invited to sit on various judging panels at business awards. To help me reduce my bias, I follow a deliberate priming behaviour checklist below.

6 Primer questions to help manage unconscious bias

(Substitute your own situation and you’ll gain the same effect).

  1. Does this award nomination remind me in any way about myself?
  2. Does it remind me of somebody I know and is that negative, neutral or positive?
  3. What assessments have I already made about this person?
  4. Are they really relevant to the award being sought?
  5. Are these grounded in solid information or are they simply my interpretations based upon the sound of their name, their photo, their location or their profitability?
  6. Are there things about the award nomination I may inadvertently put too much weight on due to my personal taste? (Ok confession time - for me I can’t walk past a helpful infographic or colourful timeline - just saying).

Unconscious bias may be as natural as breathing and near impossible to remove from our decision-making processes.

But by making room for regular conversations about possible bias and using priming questions to help focus our attention, you can lead your team to better understand the risk of unconscious biases - and how to out-think the competition.

The last word

Postscript: When I last spoke with Jesus, he didn't mention the long hair message; so I let the issue go.

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