Best Practices & Case Studies
Leaders strengthen diversity by exposing unconscious bias
Jeffrey Johnson · 10.09.2020

For any organization serious about creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, the problem of Unconscious Bias needs serious contemplation.

I was very encouraged that the organizers of the last SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) Edge 2020 conference included Unconscious Bias as a discussion topic and I had the opportunity to share perspectives and insights with fellow panelists. As HR professionals, we were in agreement that this was truly worth a company’s effort to attempt to address the problem in practical ways. 

Unconscious bias, or the attitudes and stereotypes about certain groups of people or individuals that we hold but are not totally aware of, may be blocking our companies’ journeys towards sustainable growth. These unfounded beliefs residing deep in the subconscious are ingrained in people while young – by our backgrounds, culture, and experiences. It can manifest in many ways, from unintentional micro aggressive behaviors to unfair decisions in the workplace. 

Examples of microaggressions are thoughtless remarks that are sexist, racist, or offensive to others sometimes packaged as harmless jokes but are actually diminishing the humanity of a colleague and have lasting damage to relationships and can make the workplace feel unwelcoming. 

Unconscious bias may also be impacting your strategies. For instance, how many women are in your tech and innovation projects? Do your policies assume that only the women have child rearing responsibilities? Do you have a variety of explanations why you limit recruitment and sourcing efforts for people with disability? 

Being “unconscious” makes the bias doubly intractable. If a person is unaware that actions and decisions have been influenced by internal misconceptions, then who will let that person know? If that person is a high-ranking leader in the organization, will someone have the courage to tell the leader that the decision is unfairly biased and uninformed? 

As leaders, therein lies the biggest hurdle in facing unconscious bias – the fact that the hard work must first be done within ourselves. The first step is self-work. 

How easy is it for a leader to take the time to stop and do a self-check and analyze the factors that influence his or her own decision that affect other people? Frankly, not as easy as you would probably assume. Actually, it’s very hard. In his book entitled Everyday Bias, diversity expert Howard Ross notes how “Ultimately, we believe our decisions are consistent with our conscious beliefs, when in fact, our unconscious is running the show.” 

People know themselves to be basically good and fair-minded, so there is very little inducement to consider the question of bias. It takes a leader of great confidence and inner strength who will take up the challenge of making the effort to look at decisions with critical reflection through the lens of unconscious bias. It takes courage to take a hard look at yourself and endanger the ego to learn about how you may actually be doing unintentional harm to your team. 

This is why great leaders reflect and act. Because they care about the people under their leadership and recognize that authentic growth will be the result of the work that they put in to ensure the workplace is truly fair, nurturing, and a safe, welcoming space for all. 

For leaders, therefore, serious about creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, the self-work to examine and bring to light their own unconscious bias is crucial. It is worth every painful realization to see your people thrive and grow under your leadership and your organization move forward and make a difference in your community.