By confronting individuals who hold explicit egalitarian values with evidence of their hidden biases, unconscious bias training seeks to motivate employees to override their automatic biased tendencies. Best practice unconscious bias training also builds skills for overriding bias, for example, perspective-taking, making culturally appropriate attributions, and counter-stereotypical imaging.
While training is a critical and necessary component of an organisation’s efforts to reduce unconscious bias, companies committed to reducing unconscious bias can also draw upon social psychological literature to design work settings that temper the automatic activation of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
Workplace cultures that support self-worth, offer opportunities for positive intergroup contact, promote employee well-being, and encourage and reward pro-equality norms, support unconscious bias training and encourage the transfer of knowledge and skills acquired in training to the workplace.
In this post, I examine the first of those suggestions—workplace cultures that support self-worth.
Understanding Unconscious Bias
Modern theories of racism and sexism propose that we simultaneously hold unconscious prejudices and strong pro-equality ideals. Our unconscious bias develops mostly from biased media representations, but also from our social experiences. As we are repeatedly exposed to stereotypical associations and prejudices from an early age, these become automated in our long-term memory. At the same time, the outward expression of internalised bias is curbed by strong social norms and legal restrictions against expressed prejudice and discrimination.
The result is a subtle, hidden, and often unconscious negative bias towards particular social groups. Even individuals who truly believe they are non-prejudiced hold unconscious bias. Studies show racism and sexism manifest as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour in individuals who expressly endorse egalitarian values, particularly when there is not enough time to engage controlled processing and regulate responses, or when bias can be justified or rationalised on non-discriminatory grounds.
The Negative Implications of Unconscious Bias at Work
In the workplace, unconscious bias in recruitment, selection, promotion, development, and everyday workplace interaction creates inequality, establishes social and emotional distance between different groups, increases legal and reputational risk, and threatens employee well-being, engagement, commitment, and productivity.
Unconscious bias limits the strategic potential that that flows from a diverse workforce for problem solving and decision-making, innovation and creativity, accessing diverse customers and suppliers, and attracting and energising top global talent.
Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, and Bias
Ingroup bias is our tendency to favour our own social group (ingroup) more than groups of which we are not a member (outgroups). Studies show that, in general, people extend greater trust, positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to ingroup members compared with outgroup members. Ingroup bias discourages intergroup contact, perpetuates negative stereotypes, and is linked to prejudice and discrimination.
What is so striking about ingroup bias is that it can occur when there is no real difference between two groups, no competitive struggle over scarce resources, nor any threat to the ingroup’s survival. In the 1970s and early 1980s, in a series of famous experiments, Henri Tajfel demonstrated that even an arbitrary allocation of people (for example, by the toss of a coin) to different groups caused ‘us versus them’ distinctions and triggered ingroup bias.
Because ingroup bias can occur in the absence of competition or threat, Tajfel theorised that it results from a universal human motivation to maintain a high regard for the self. Group membership is an important source of one’s self-esteem; we can boost our self-esteem by associating with high-status groups, by distancing ourselves from low-status groups, and by boosting the relative status of our ingroup compared with outgroups. Ingroup bias is one of the ways in which we affirm our self-worth.
Tajfel’s theory is supported by a large number of studies. Research shows that when self-esteem is threatened, the tendency for prejudice increases. Also, when individuals who have suffered a loss of self-esteem, for example, after receiving a poor grade on an exam, are later given an opportunity to express prejudice towards an outgroup member, their self-esteem rebounds.
Steele’s self-affirmation theory also links prejudice to how we feel about ourselves. Self-affirmation theory posits that individuals are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self. Integrity refers to one’s sense of “worth”—an individual’s belief that they are a “good person”.
The criteria for assessing one’s integrity/self-worth varies across cultures and situations. Across different contexts, integrity might refer to honesty, loyalty, modesty, or autonomy. In other contexts, integrity might involve maintaining close personal ties to others, competence, or intelligence. Self-integrity involves both how one perceives of themselves, and how they believe others view them, compared to that criteria. A threat to one’s integrity involves an actual or perceived failure in meeting those values and standards.
Threats to integrity activate various cognitive defenses that act to diminish the threat and restore one’s self-worth. Self-affirming defenses include reinterpreting the meaning of an event—for example, framing failure as a learning opportunity—or downplaying the significance of the threat—for example, dismissing or denying the event. Individuals can also restore their self-worth by derogating others. Simply put, we can make ourselves feel better by putting other people down. This tendency to disparage others when our self-worth is threatened is linked to prejudice.
Reducing Bias Through Self-Affirming Workplaces
Because prejudice can be a defensive response to integrity or self-esteem threats, self-affirming workplaces can reduce the motivation for prejudice and tendencies for explicit or unconscious bias. In contrast, workplaces that threaten one’s integrity and self-esteem are more fertile grounds for “us” and “them” categorisations, the activation of negative stereotypes, and explicit or unconscious biased attitudes and behaviours.
Negative threats to our integrity can be countered by calling to mind other positive aspects of our self-worth. Reflecting on one’s core values can broaden our perspective—shifting focus away from the identity-threatening event towards a more encompassing and affirming sense of one’s greater self-worth. Self-affirming techniques are used in education and clinical practice to reduce distress and promote more adaptive responses in the face of integrity threats.
Inclusive workplaces that recognise, respect, value, and embrace cultural differences support self-worth. Our cultural identity (whether national, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, health status) forms an integral part of our self-concept and self-esteem. When employers encourage the expression of unique cultural identities, an employee’s self-esteem and integrity are supported. Inclusive workplaces have workers who are are psychologically well-adjusted and secure. Those workers are less likely to categorise their colleagues into “us” versus “them” social groups.
In contrast, workplaces that seek to assimilate members to a dominant group culture can threaten one’s integrity. Attempts to superimpose new cultural elements on top of deeply ingrained cultural values threaten one’s psychological well-being and can trigger self-affirming defence mechanisms that activate social categorisation processes and threaten positive intergroup relations.
As workplaces become increasingly diverse and global, building an inclusive culture will help to guard against intergroup tensions and regional or demographic silos. In multicultural workgroups, inclusion can prevent the formation of faultlines—demographic subgroups that emerge naturally within multicultural teams, largely as a result of our preferences for people similar to ourselves. Intergroup tensions, silos, and faultlines threaten information-sharing and collaboration and limit the strategic potential that can flow from diverse workforces.
Realistic Job Demands and Positive Recognition
The demands facing today’s workers are significantly higher than for previous generations—workers are required to manage greater workloads, deliver higher levels of productivity, and cope with increased job uncertainty, while receiving less recognition for their achievements. Excessive job demands enhance stress, limit opportunities for adequate rest and recuperation, increase the potential for burnout, and threaten self-esteem.
Whereas work has been a source of self-worth and security for previous generations, today’s employees increasingly experience the workplace as a source of anxiety and depression. Those conditions increase workplace incivility and harassment, which further damage perceptions of self-worth.
Organisations seeking to reduce unconscious bias should be cognisant of the potential for excessive job demands to damage self-esteem, trigger social categorisation processes and, in turn, activate negative stereotypes and promote bias.
To decrease the risk of negative intergroup relations, organisations should support their employees’ self-esteem by ensuring the performance appraisal processes includes timely and regular feedback on strengths and successes as well as developmental goals. Also, workplaces that offer opportunities for performance success and growth, but do not impose unrealistic deadlines or targets, support self-worth.
In summary, workplaces where employees feel good about themselves are much better placed to fight unconscious bias compared to work settings that breed anxiety or self-doubt.
Addressing unconscious bias at work is problematic because, by its definition, an individual will most likely be unaware of its influence. Also, negative stereotypes and prejudices are maintained and reinforced by powerful cognitive and motivational biases that act to filter out information that contradicts or challenges our preexisting beliefs or attitudes.
Although prejudice intervention studies conducted by social psychologists under controlled conditions in the laboratory target distinct approaches to reducing prejudice, the complexities of bias in real-world contexts necessitates a multifaceted approach. Organisations that invest in unconscious bias training and commit to work environments that discourage social categorisations stand the best chance of leveraging the strategic value of diversity.