Unconscious biases: We all have them and let them affect our decision-making. And if you think you don’t, or that you are not influenced by them, think again because it’s just human nature.
“I wish all professionals understood the concept of unconscious bias, how prevalent they are, how strongly they are reinforced on a daily basis, and some of the simple ways we can identify and challenge the effects of our own biases on our thoughts, decisions and behaviors,” says Jessica Ellis-Wilson, CMPE, DEI consultant and speaker.
“Too many people think they don’t hold unconscious biases, or if they do, that such biases do not affect their decision making. In many cases, unconscious biases are simply brain shortcuts that allow us to function in the world without cognitive overload — but every one of us holds unconscious biases that have the potential to cause harm to ourselves and others.”
Here are five unconscious biases that can seriously harm your career, whether you’re on the receiving end of them or you direct them at others.
1. Cultural fit
If you work at a company where there is a high emphasis on cultural fit, you may be surprised to find out it can be a problematic bias, according to Dr. Ruth C. White, director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Carbon Five.
“The idea of ‘cultural fit’ is an unconscious bias that all professionals need to be aware of: What is it that makes you think someone ‘fits’ or does not ‘fit’ into your organization or into a particular role? What are your defaults about who fits into your organization or on your team?” she says.
She adds that if done well, hiring for cultural fit can add diversity to an organization when it focuses on talents, skills and values instead of background and interests. But most organizations fail to hire for fit effectively because of social compatibility.
“This means they end up hiring people because they came from the same schools, played the same sports or have the same hobbies.”
So the next time you get excited because a candidate is a cultural fit or feel tempted to judge one of your coworkers as not a cultural fit, remember that your perception might be a harmful bias in disguise.
2. Gender bias
You’ve probably come across or perpetuated biases around gender roles without even realizing it. For example, do you think of dads devoted to their families as particularly inspiring? That seemingly harmless compliment is actually based on stereotypes.
“There are prevalent biases in the business world that women are less dedicated to their careers than men, because of the bias that women should be the primary family caretakers and men the primary financial support,” says Ellis-Wilson.
“Men who take on the primary caretaker role are either ridiculed (see: Mr Mom) or disproportionately lauded (see: ‘He’s such a dedicated dad. He puts the kids to bed *every* night!’ — no one would make that statement about a mom).”
According to her, women are also more likely to be talked over or interrupted in meetings or discussions. So be mindful before interrupting your female coworkers in conversations. And if it happens to you, interject and take the conversation back.
3. Racial bias
Racial biases are alive and well and can destroy someone’s career.
“People with marginalized identities are less likely to be listened to, less likely to have their voice heard in meetings, more likely to get pushback and resistance from colleagues and clients. For example, studies have shown that doctors with marginalized identities are more likely to have their orders questioned by support staff and patients than their non-marginalized counterparts,” adds Ellis-Wilson.
According to her, other common scenarios of racial biases in action include recruiters and hiring managers disregarding resumes with “ethnic” sounding names or BIPOC professionals being passed over for high-profile projects or promotions.
“These biases often lead to microaggressions, even among people who consciously would consider themselves allies. Because, by definition, unconscious biases affect our cognitive processes prior to conscious awareness, and can cause significant harm, particularly when we consider their cumulative effects.”
Dave Liu, a four-time entrepreneur and 30-year Wall Street and Silicon Valley veteran, is no stranger to the “model minority myth,” another dangerous racial bias.
“Typically used against Asian Americans, this refers to a minority group perceived as particularly successful, especially in a manner that contrasts with other minority groups. Asian Americans are viewed as obedient, workaholics, math geniuses. These are all great traits for junior people but not for senior people. They hurt chances for our career progression because we are viewed as not having leadership material,” he says.
4. Overconfidence bias
We often think about confidence as a great trait to have in the workplace, but overconfidence bias is real and it can lead to serious career blunders. It’s the tendency to view your skills and abilities in a more positive light than they are in reality. And it gets more destructive when it extends into your perception of how ethical you are (because, hello, unconscious biases!).
“Generally, people believe that they are more ethical than their competitors, coworkers, and peers. For example, a recent study showed that 50% of businesspeople polled believed that they were in the top 10% ethically,” according to The University of Texas at Austin.
“The most overconfident are often the most ignorant because they have blind spots. They’re know-it-alls who think everyone’s a friend. Just ask Julius Caesar about his amigo Brutus,” shares Liu. In case you didn’t know, Brutus was one of Caesar’s assassins.
5. Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is another unconscious bias you want to pay particular attention to at work.
“Confirmation bias is when you selectively seek information which fits your argument, opinion, or narrative. Those with confirmation bias tend to discard information which contradicts their point of view,” says Gregory Young, Chief Experience Officer at Convincely.
“The consequence of confirmation bias is that it can get in the way of creating real, positive change. Those with confirmation bias might be consciously prideful, unwilling to be challenged or simply surrounded by others with the same point of view. In all cases, failing to act upon issues before they get a chance to escalate can lead to a backlog of consequences which grind productivity to a halt.”