Behavioural expert, Richard Daniel Curtis, CEO of The Mentoring School, explains why unconscious bias could be changing our workplaces without us even realising.
In the news over the past few days there has been a story in the news about an individual employee in Google posting an anti-diversity memo and the strong reaction (both ways) that this has caused. The author of the memo is purported to be a male software engineer arguing that it is not sexist that there is a lack of women in senior tech jobs, but that it is down to biological differences.
For me, this highlighted the huge problem facing us, that of Unconscious Bias.
I have no doubt that that the author has rationalised his argument very well, but that it began with an original thought pattern or belief that is working on a subliminal level – that men and women have different brains or different abilities and this poses a real risk to the modern workplace.
Let me explain how the brain tries to be helpful when it comes to decisions – it wants to reduce the pressure on your conscious mind and so makes short-cuts to what it thinks are easy decisions. An example would be, someone asks you what you want to drink when you are out, most of the time you have an automatic answer that comes out without thinking about it (but not all of the time). This is a simplistic schema our brain has developed to short-cut the decision-making process.
It will be based on your own experience, the values of those who brought you up (in fact, there are many inter-generational Unconscious Biases out there), your environment, the beliefs and culture of those around you to name but a few. These factors have combined to make your brain have the certain belief of the decision you will make about something, so therefore the brain doesn’t consult you, it makes the decision.
When looking through job applications, for example, you may avoid those applicants with similar names or backgrounds to a problem member of staff, you may pass over someone (without even realising) just based on their age, gender, religion, name (or other factors) – all at a subliminal level. Conversely, you may end up selecting a particular candidate for exactly the same reasons. The former is known as a negative bias, the latter an affinity bias, both are operating at a level that the person is not conscious of.
With the challenges of modern diversity (gender, age, religion, ethnic origin, special needs to name a few), Unconscious Bias is posing a real threat to the 21st Century workplace, affecting not only recruitment, but management decision-making, communication and pay to name but a few.
Most weeks there is one report or another covering a diversity issue, the example by Google being just one. Many are being affected by the subliminal thoughts of those involved. For example, until it was analysed extensively in the press, did the BBC consider the ethnic origin or gender of its most well-paid presenters?
One strategy that many have employed is Unconscious Bias training. My team at The Mentoring School offer online, one-day and weekend courses in identifying and understanding Unconscious Bias.
What we have found is that not only is it important to help people identify their biases in the first place, it is important to embed an ethos that embraces conversation about what can be uncomfortable issues to discuss. Senior management need to be involved in training to recognise their own needs, in addition to the general workforce.
Training is just the start of addressing your own Unconscious Bias, the main thing is that with that learning a support package is put in place to ensure there is ongoing support to ensure that the unconscious becomes conscious.
Needless to say, this is not an issue that will be cured overnight, there are many cultural factors that need to be considered at all levels of organisations, training being only part of the solution.
About the author
Richard Daniel Curtis is an author and a reknowned behavioural expert, having widely appeared on TV and leading online publications. He founded The Mentoring School in 2016, and the company’s multi-award winning training service offers courses for mentoring young people, refugees, apprentices, business leaders and entrepreneurs. The company can also assist in setting up workplace mentoring schemes.