Research shows we can simultaneously hold unconscious stereotypes and prejudices alongside strong egalitarian (equality) ideals.
Our unconscious bias develops mostly from biased media representations: as we are repeatedly exposed to stereotypical associations and prejudices from a young age, these biases become automated in our long-term memory. Yet the outward expression of internalised bias is curbed by strong social norms and legal restrictions.
The result is a subtle, hidden, and often unconscious negative bias towards particular social groups. Unconscious bias may even be held by individuals who truly believe they are unprejudiced. Studies show racism and sexism manifest in prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour even when a person expressly endorses equality.
Unconscious bias at work
Unconscious bias is problematic in the workplace. Stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination create physical and emotional distance between employees of different social groups. Mild forms of bias can lead to awkward and uncomfortable interactions, intentional or unconscious avoidance, and interactions lacking warmth or civility. More extreme forms of bias can lead to tension and conflict, hostility, harassment, or aggression.
Unconscious bias can overshadow the strategic benefits of workforce diversity by preventing employees from contributing and achieving their full potential. Companies that do not address bias may also face costly discrimination claims.
To reduce unconscious bias at work, organisations need Cultural Intelligence, an inclusive culture, a supportive performance appraisal process, and strong anti-prejudice norms.
Cultural Intelligence training incorporates awareness, attitudes, and skill modules to reduce unconscious bias.
Early diversity training programs were designed to enlighten majority groups as to their biases and prejudices, and how power and privilege differentials may have favoured them at the expense of other groups. But a ‘blame and shame’ approach can invoke negative emotions including confusion, anger, and distress, as well as heighten intergroup tensions.
In contrast, Cultural Intelligence training stresses the universal tendency for bias. Cultural Intelligence training develops self-awareness of one’s own culturally limited interpretative frameworks and how associated biases and prejudices impact all of our exchanges with diverse others.
Outdated approaches to diversity training that focus on the characteristics of broad social identity groups (for example, nationality or gender) encourage ‘us vs. them’ social categorisations and perpetuate stereotypes and associated bias. Cultural Intelligence training avoids social categorisation by fostering an awareness that cultures are not ‘monolithic’ homogenous groups and addresses the risks and fallacies of cultural stereotyping.
Awareness alone is rarely effective for reducing unconscious bias. Prejudice is maintained and reinforced by powerful mental and motivational biases that filter out information contradicting or challenging pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.
Even the most well-intentioned individuals fail to suppress their automatic stereotypes and prejudices all of the time. Controlled responses are deliberate and much slower than automatic responses so there remains the possibility for reflexive and immediate biased responses, even in individuals who support egalitarian values. Also, when individuals are mentally taxed or fatigued (for example, when engaged in complex problem solving) they are less able to override reflexive responses.
Awareness training must therefore be supplemented with skills training. Programs that motivate employees to change but do not equip them with the skills the effect that change can cause frustration and an inability to transfer new knowledge back to the workplace. If employees are left confused about how to apply their learnings, their resulting behaviour may cause more harm than good.
Cultural Intelligence training develops techniques for overcoming unconscious bias, including the ability to make culturally appropriate attributions and to take alternative perspectives.
Unconscious bias is a cause of workplace incivility. Workplace incivility is more subtle than outright forms of discrimination and harassment but nonetheless has negative implications for job satisfaction, engagement, and employee commitment and well-being. Workplace incivility involves behaviour that is rude, discourteous, or inconsiderate of others. It includes insults, misplaced or excessive criticism, gossip, or exclusion. Research shows 75 to 80 percent of all workers have experienced some form of incivility.
Civility involves treating others with courtesy, politeness, and concern. Civility involves respecting the humanity of diverse others. Respect with civility is the positive regard for others as an equal. It involves disagreeing without demonising and hearing diverse opinions without attacking. Cultural Intelligence training promotes workplace civility by encouraging respect for different cultural values, beliefs, and practices.
Inclusive culture: valuing diversity
An inclusive culture involves defining a workgroup by heterogeneity (differences between members) instead of homogeneity (similarities between members). In inclusive workplaces, people identify with each other through recognising they share the same characteristic of “difference”.
An inclusive workplace does not seek to assimilate its members to a dominant group culture. Inclusion seeks to preserve a diversity of cultural identities through open dialogue and learning from each other’s differences.
Developing an inclusive culture requires that leaders and employees value diversity. Diversity must be viewed as a critical organisational resource that enhances performance–a core asset of the firm that can challenge and change existing processes and assumptions. Inclusive organisations acknowledge that diversity can drive creativity and innovation and improve decision-making and problem solving. Also, an environment that preserves cultural identities is more likely to be attractive to a broader pool of employees; firms adopting an inclusive strategy are better able to attract the top talent from a diverse labour market.
Embracing diversity involves accommodating and embracing the distinct needs of different cultural identity groups. For example, flexible scheduling that recognises family demands, and mentoring programs help overcome the risk of exclusion from informal social networks.
An inclusive culture can also be nurtured by supporting friendships among diverse colleagues. A relational approach fosters inclusion by encouraging the sharing of information and perspectives. Food sharing is a great way to encourage dialogue and shared learning between culturally diverse individuals. This technique, and other team-building exercises, can prompt diverse group members to share information about their unique backgrounds, experiences, and skills.
Inclusion can also be encouraged by structuring tasks and rewards to encourage cooperation and collaboration; examples include creating diverse teams with shared goals, rewarding group performance rather than individual performance, and using 360 feedback. In contrast, independent job design and reward structures can foster competitiveness and defensiveness.
Supportive performance appraisal
Studies show that unconscious bias is greater when self-esteem is low and self-affirming techniques decrease the motivation for prejudice. An organisation can support an employee’s self-esteem by ensuring the performance appraisal processes includes timely and regular feedback on strengths and successes as well as developmental goals.
Because prejudice and discrimination are social constructions they are powerfully influenced by social norms. To decrease unconscious bias, it is important for an organisation to have a senior management team and diversity champions who model positive intergroup relations. Research shows that observing the positive interaction of another in-group member with out-group members can reduce prejudice. Highlighting diverse friendships is a particularly effective approach.
Studies also show that modeling reduces bias in a similar way to direct intergroup contact–it reduces uncertainty and perceptions of threat and anxiety, while increasing empathy, warmth, and trust. Modeling also achieves its effects by establishing a pro-diversity social norm.
It is also extremely important to encourage employees to reject the expression of prejudice at work. If biased individuals believes they are supported in their views by the majority they are likely to be more vocal and steadfast in their opinions. Evidence that others may not share their views—even just one person speaking out—can decrease the expression of prejudice, which is why employees should receive prejudice response training.
Corporate communications like company websites, newsletters, emails, briefings, and team meetings are useful for highlighting examples pro-diversity behaviour.
Corporate policies must sanction discrimination and prejudice.
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