Unconscious Bias: What It Is and How It Affects Managers

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

“You gave my co-worker a raise, but I deserved it more because I pull more of the load.”

This is just one of many complaints Jhana has heard about unfair treatment in the workplace — a common issue direct reports point to when asked how their managers could improve.

Of course, very few managers purposefully set out to do unfair things. But that doesn’t mean employees’ complaints are necessarily off base either. So what explains the frequent disconnect between managers’ impressions and those of their team members?

There could be many factors at play, from different expectations to a lack of transparency. And in some cases, one culprit is something called unconscious bias. It’s a concept that’s igniting more and more conversations in the workplace because of the powerful effects it can have on morale, performance, and overall business outcomes.

What is unconscious bias?

It’s more complex than most managers realize. Decades of research indicate that our unconscious biases:

  • Are often likes and dislikes. Just as you have preferences for things, like your team or mentor, or aversions to things, like competitors or policies you disagree with, you have ingrained likes and dislikes around people’s gender, race, age range, personality, appearance, etc. These unconscious biases have the potential to lead you to reflexively choose one thing over another even though your choice might not be logically “best.” Often, we tend to prefer characteristics like our own or those society favors and avoid characteristics that are different from our experiences or what society prefers. For instance, you might feel most comfortable on a team with others who share your interests and views, but is that the “best” team?
  • Are the result of mental shortcuts that serve a necessary and helpful purpose. We have so much information flying at us that our brains protect us by filtering out most of it and operating via shortcuts. This can be a blessing for time-strapped managers, letting them make quick or instinctive decisions without needing to deliberate every piece of information. But as we rush, we become prone to bias in ways we might find unacceptable if we paused to analyze the subtext. Without thinking, a hiring manager plowing quickly through resumes makes assessments: this school is good, this name sounds successful, this resume’s format looks cool.
  • Kick in automatically. Before you have the chance to be deliberate, you might find yourself doing things like: judging a new colleague in five seconds; always delegating an annoying task, like taking notes, to a minority or female team member; or writing up feedback for a direct report in a performance evaluation without using a rubric that you use to develop feedback for all team members.
  • Can subvert our conscious beliefs. Most of us know all too well that stereotypes are problematic: “Younger workers are more creative,” “introverts aren’t good salespeople,” “women who argue points are too aggressive,” “men and Asians are better at handling technical issues.” But here’s the maddening truth: Our awareness of these stereotypes is sometimes all it takes for them to influence our behavior, even if we consciously believe they’re not true! How can that be? It goes back to the automatic nature of unconscious biases. They seep into our actions when we’re not thinking about the good intentions and beliefs that might keep stereotypes in check.

When is unconscious bias riskiest for managers?

Unconscious biases can show up basically anywhere in the workplace. But they can be especially damaging when you:

  • Hire. It’s hard to believe managers would unknowingly reject a resume because of the candidate’s name or reflexively make a decision on a candidate five minutes into an interview. But research finds they do. These and other hiring biases prevent you from building the kind of diverse team that tends to perform better than teams of like-minded people of similar backgrounds.
  • Delegate. You might inadvertently overlook some employees, such as those who work remotely, for important assignments even when they’re better suited to do them — not only keeping your team from doing its best, but also crippling your remotes’ chances to develop their skills and/or build a case for a promotion.
  • Give feedback. For example, studies find that women receive twice the negative feedback as men in their performance reviews, which damages their chances for raises and promotions. Women and minorities also receive more vague and less constructive feedback — the sort that would benefit their development.
  • Develop or review client-facing products and/or messaging. You don’t want to be responsible for one of those tone-deaf products or messages that leaves people wondering, What were they were thinking? Often, a hidden bias was at play — one that snuck past a team’s conscious desire to do right by their clients.

Why should I do something about unconscious bias at work?

There are at least four good reasons to sit up and take the reins from your unconscious:

  • Biases can keep your team from having and sharing a wide range of perspectives. Yet these perspectives can help your team’s performance — and your company’s bottom line.
  • Biases can limit your expectations of yourself, holding you back in your career. Maybe there’s a little voice in your head questioning whether the executive track is realistic for you — a voice that gains credibility as the years go by without you ever seeing someone upend the stereotypes that are causing you to doubt yourself.
  • Biases are not what organizations want in their managers. The number of diversity-minded companies that take this stuff seriously and want fair, inclusive managers is growing.
  • Biases unfairly hurt your colleagues. Experiences of bias compound, causing pay gaps, missed promotions, and relatively sparse recognition for certain groups of people. Affected colleagues can become less engaged, less likely to perform to the best of their abilities, and more likely to leave. Plus, being the target of bias just plain hurts, potentially taking a costly psychological toll.

It’s a common misconception that you can’t do anything about your unconscious biases. You can.