Unconscious Bias; Could Leaders Be Doing More?

Sam Malik


Every day we make automatic and quick judgements about people and situations. We make these judgements based on our values, our past experiences, background, culture and our learned behaviours. Our brain receives up to 11 million units of information every second. We can only process 40 of these units in our conscious brain so we need our unconscious brain to process the remainder. When we make these quick judgements and decisions, we are said to be using our unconscious bias.

Why do we have unconscious bias and is it so bad? Actually, unconscious bias is a basic survival mechanism, so basic that we are unaware of it. We all have it. Research shows that we begin to create unconscious bias as early as 3 months old. It serves two main purposes. Firstly, it creates order in our brain and secondly, it creates a sense of belonging and safety.

However, even though it serves a significant purpose, unconscious bias can have a profound effect in the workplace. It can adversely affect the organisation’s culture; it can impact decisions made in hiring, succession planning, training, development and retention. We often hire people that we like or that we can relate to, for example, those with similar sporting interests, those that have a similar background or culture to us, those of the same gender or of a similar age. Whilst this meets our individual preferences, it is not always the best decision for the goals and values of an organisation.

Unconscious bias can restrict our ability to make the right business decision, it can risk diversity and limit a culture of inclusiveness. And we now know the effect that can have on a company’s financial performance. A recent report by McKinsey & Company found that, compared to their competitors, organisations that have a low proportion of diverse and female candidates were 29% more likely to underperform. Therefore, if unconscious bias affects areas of diversity and inclusiveness, addressing it can only be a good thing.

So how can we address unconscious bias most effectively in the workplace?

  • Start from the top. Leaders have a significant responsibility to shape the cultural values and performance of a business. Understand and learn about unconscious bias, both individuals’ and others. These can be done as part of an education training exercise or by carrying out tests available online.
  • Understand that training is not enough. It is the start and should be used as a basis for regular discussion and exploration. Be aware that in some instances it can exacerbate defensiveness. Training alone will not change thinking processes.
  • Know the impact and consequences of existing unconscious bias in the organisation.
  • Devise an action plan and methods of change implementation. This could include assessing existing leaders, ensuring that hiring methods are objective and consistent, for example, using personality assessments to assess cultural and personal fit and role profiling for alignment.
  • Where leaders display bias which may be counter-productive, introduce individual coaching to help bridge any gaps in line with business values and vision.
  • Use “bias-interrupters” to avoid defaulting to the unconscious way of making decisions. This is an evidence-based change to basic business systems that stop the pattern of bias. Some organisations have employed teams/individuals who have been trained to recognise bias and make small changes. An example would be to alter the wording of a role specification that may attract higher applications from women.
  • Revise systems and processes regularly to assess implications of change. Measure the implications of change.

It is clear that despite great efforts at addressing diversity and inclusion in organisations, outcomes are still relatively poor. Although of great benefit, understanding the link with unconscious bias is not enough. Leaders can have great influence by recognising its existence, altering behavioural and system strategies and begin to practice that change on a regular and long-term basis.


We work with clients to bring about widespread cultural evolution in their businesses and help them to truly empower diversity & inclusion.

For a discussion about how our approach to D&I can support your objectives, get in touch using the contact form below.

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