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Here’s How Business Leaders Can Defeat Unconscious Bias

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How can business leaders defeat unconscious bias? First, you need to know what unconscious bias is.

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on. It differs from cognitive bias, which is a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the most likely way of reaching our goals. 

In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want.

Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains. In contrast, unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and is specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example — a geographic one, instead of historical — most people in the US don’t have a strong opinion on Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many other parts of the world.

As a frequent speaker and trainer on diversity and inclusion, who tries to address potential unconscious discriminatory behavior, I regularly share in my speeches that black Americans suffer more from police harassment and violence than white people. Often, some participants (usually white) try to defend the police by claiming that black people are more violent and more likely to break the law than whites. Thus, they attribute police harassment to the internal characteristics of black people (implying that it is deserved), and not to the external context of police behavior. 

In reality — as I point out in my response to these folks — research shows that black people are harassed and harmed by police more frequently for the same types of activities. A white person walking past a cop, for example, is statistically much less likely to be stopped and frisked than a black person. In addition, a white person resisting arrest is much less likely to be violently beaten than a black person. In other words, statistics show that the higher rate of harassment and violence against black Americans by police is due to the prejudice of police officers, to a large extent.

However, I am careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes, it is indeed deliberate, with white police officers consciously believing that black Americans deserve more scrutiny than whites. At other times, the discriminatory behavior results from the unconscious, implicit thought processes that a police officer might not consciously endorse. 

Interestingly, research shows that many black police officers have an unconscious prejudice against other black people, perceiving them in a more negative light than white people when evaluating potential suspects. This unconscious bias carried by many — not all — black police officers helps show that such prejudice comes — at least to a significant extent — from an internal culture within a police department, rather than pre-existing racist attitudes prior to joining law enforcement 

Such cultures are perpetuated by internal norms, policies, and training procedures. Any police department wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than simply attributing racism to individual officers. Instead of saying, “it’s just a few bad apples in a barrel of good,” the key is to recognize that implicit bias is a systemic issue, and that, instead, the structure of the barrel should be fixed.

The crucial thing to highlight is that there is no shame or blame in implicit bias, as it doesn’t stem from a fault in an individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight response among reluctant audiences, helping them instead hear and accept the issue.

By adding these statistics and discussions around implicit bias, the issue generally gets settled. Still, it’s clear that some people don’t immediately internalize these facts. It’s much more comforting for them to feel that police officers are right, and anyone targeted by the police deserve the consequences. As a result, they are highly reluctant to acknowledge that more effort and energy is needed to protect black Americans from police violence.

Here are some steps to fight unconscious bias, that will help in making the “best people decisions.” After all, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgments when we follow our intuition. 

1) Start by learning about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias, so that you know what you’re trying to address. 

2) You need to convey to people you want to influence, such as employees (and yourself), that there should be no shame or guilt in acknowledging our instincts. 

3) Next, you need to convey the dangers associated with following intuitions and build up an emotional investment in changing behaviors.

4) Then, you need to communicate the right mental habits that will help them make the best choices. 

Remember, one-time training is insufficient for doing this. It takes a long-term commitment and constant discipline and effort to overcome unconscious bias.

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