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Unconscious bias in the workplace: how fair are you?

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Regardless of how fair minded we believe ourselves to be, most people have some degree of unconscious bias.
Dr. Melrona Kirrane is an expert in the field of unconscious bias and its impact on business. She talks to The Daily Slog about the five most common types of bias in the workplace; do they sound familiar?

 

Tell us about your work on unconscious bias; what is it and how does it manifest itself in business?

Unconscious bias is a term used to describe the associations that we hold which, despite being outside our conscious awareness, can have a significant influence on our attitudes and behaviour. Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. 

Regardless of how fair minded we believe ourselves to be, most people have some degree of unconscious bias. The means that we automatically respond to others (e.g. people from different racial or ethnic groups) in positive or negative ways.

 

Acknowledging such biases, and trying to see the value of each person as an individual is a moral imperative that has financial and reputational consequences.

 

The simple explanation to this process is that we naturally gravitate toward and feel more comfortable with people who are like ourselves – this is not a crime, it is part of our natural human disposition. These associations are difficult to override, because they are deeply ingrained into our thinking and emotions and serve the function of maintaining the structure of groups. However, such biases may result in excessively favouring people who are similar to us and being unwilling to do the work required to understand and value those who are different. Acknowledging such biases, and trying to see the value of each person as an individual is a moral imperative that has financially and reputationally important consequences.

We all need to recognise and acknowledge our biases and find ways to mitigate their impact on our behaviour and decisions.

 

The most common bias is over-confidence in one’s own opinion which may explain why 70% of new initiatives fail.

 

You work with leading global companies in the selection and assessment of senior personnel. What are the most common biases you come across in your day to day work?

Legislation ensures that conscious discrimination against various categories of people does not occur, but people make all sorts of errors in their decision-making on a day-to-day basis.

Over-Confidence

The most common bias is over-confidence in one’s own opinion which may explain why 70% of new initiatives fail.

Self-serving bias

After that, there is the self-serving bias, which is where people favour positive information about themselves and ignore negative data.

Confirmation bias

Very common too is the confirmation bias where people analyze and search for information in ways that support their current ideas, rather than accurately process information that may disconfirm their views.

The Primacy effect

The first fact, number, or figure a person hears can bias their judgements and decisions down the line – this is known as the primacy effect

Availability bias

Then there is availability bias whereby people give undue weight to what easily comes to mind: often vivid memories or recent events. People overvalue what they own (the endowment effect) and people tend to do what others are doing (the herding effect).

So all in all, there are a lot of ways in which people can end up making faulty decisions that do not result in the optimum outcome for all concerned.

 

Dr. Melrona Kirrane is Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Dublin City University and Professor of Leadership at PNU, Riyadh. She represents DCU on the Council of Ireland’s Chapter of the 30% Club. 

Dr. Melrona Kirrane

 

 

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