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How to combat unconscious bias

Updated: Sep 13, 2018

Getting rid of that pesky judgemental voice in your head.

Unconscious bias - the ultimate 2018 workplace buzzword. Hopefully by now we all know what it means and why we should be taking steps to eliminating it in the workplace. The golden question is how - how do we rewire 20+ years of living in a society where these biases & stereotypes are woven into our culture, sometimes so subtle that they are unrecognisable?


Presenting… the ultimate guide to getting rid of that pesky judgemental voice in your head. The process above is the end goal.

Stage 1 - the thought

You’re sitting in the hospital waiting room waiting for the doctor. A woman in scrubs walks in. That pesky voice in your head (let’s call her Judith - highly recommend naming your own voice) pipes up with a ‘harmless’ thought which has some seriously bias undertones... ‘Oh here is the nurse’.


Stage 2 - the statement

You voice said thought to your partner sitting next to you in the waiting room... “Oh here is the nurse” (note: stages 1 & 2 happen almost simultaneously).


Stage 3 - the action

It turns out that she is actually the doctor. But, because of your initial assumption, you can’t help but taking her advice a little less seriously and are more inclined to get a second opinion.

The end goal - STOPPING AT STAGE 1. Let the thought ‘Oh here is the nurse’ come into your head, then just chill with it there. Even have a laugh at Judith. ‘Nice one Jude, way to pigeonhole someone. Pfff’. That thought isn’t doing anything in your wee head. It’s just there. Accept it, sit it with it for a moment, then promptly discard it into the gutter where it belongs.


Your partner sitting next to you, hey, they most likely had the exact same thought if they grew up in the same gender stereotyping world that you did. But if you both stopped at Stage 1, that biased thought will simply be in both of your heads for a second, then be in the gutter. The thought hasn’t gone anywhere else. This is how we combat biases. By not voicing them.


What we think, we say, and what we say, we do


It is almost impossible to rewire your brain so that the thoughts never come into your head again, but it is very doable to stop yourself voicing those damaging thoughts. Because as the saying goes, ‘what we think, we say, and what we say, we do’. You just need some practice.


Here are our tips for achieving the coveted Stage 1 pause:-


Watch your language

The easiest method to stopping at Stage 1 is changing the language that you use. Stop using gendered language. Stop mentioning someone's ethnicity when it isn’t relevant. Stop using ableist / homophobic / ageist words.


When you get the hang of monitoring your own language, getting the hang of stopping before you reach Stage 2 will naturally come next. You will start to notice how bias statements sound in the world and how much of a difference it can make when you stop saying them.


WORK EXAMPLE: You’re munching on a sandwich in the staff room when you hear a colleague call someone a ‘retard’ as an insult. To them the word was just a throwaway comment, but you have heard it a thousand times before directed at your sister who has an intellectual disability, and it hurts like hell. Watch the words that you use, you never know who is listening.


Wait for the slow brain

Try and lengthen the time between Stage 1 (thinking) and Stage 2 (saying) the thought. This extra split second is gold. It will allow you time to use your logical slow brain to analyse what the thought is, check whether it is biased, then decide whether to move on to Stage 2 or not.


WORK EXAMPLE You have a task at work that you need to delegate to another team member, so you begin to walk over to the person who you would normally ask. Cue the slow brain. Is this person similar to you? Do you always ask them? Could there be another person in your team who can do this task just as well? Nice one slow brain.


Flip it

Before you reach Stage 2 (saying), check what you are about to say against another scenario e.g. if this person was a different gender, age or race, would I react in the same way? If the answer is no, stop right there and keep that gem in your head. If the answer is yes, my thought isn’t based on a damaging stereotype, then go right ahead to Stage 2 and continue on with your day.


WORK EXAMPLE An older person comes up to you at work and asks you about an IT issue they are having. *Internal eye roll, and Judith thinks ‘Eugh this is going to take ages to explain’*. FLIP IT. Would Judith be thinking that if it was a younger person who had asked the same thing? Most likely not.


WORK EXAMPLE Someone new starts at work who you hear has moved from Christchurch. When you meet them face to face, your Stage 1 thought is to ask ‘Oh, where are you originally from?’, despite their kiwi accent and knowledge that they had lived in Christchurch for 20 years. FLIP IT. Would you ask them that if they looked pakeha? I think not Judith!


Get to know different people

More often than not, the people who we are closest to in our lives are generally similar to us - think about your closest friends or family members. This can be a recipe for prejudice. The best way to get rid of assumptions about groups of people is to get to know someone in that group. You will quickly realise that we are all not so different after all.


WORK EXAMPLE Feeling extremely uncomfortable about meeting a new employee who you know is gay? If you knew a gay person in your own life already, that attitude would probably not exist as you would realise that that they are just a regular person like you. It will be a lot harder to jump to Stage 2, making a homophobic joke, when you have spent time with someone directly affected by those jokes. Get Judith to think “hmmm, would my gay friend Hemi appreciate that comment?”. He probably wouldn’t.


Find real life examples

Before jumping to Stage 2, check to see whether the biased comment you are about to make actually aligns with your reality. Is the Stage 1 thought actually true in your own life, or are you simply basing it on a stereotype that you have been fed your whole life?


WORK EXAMPLE You hear that your workplace is offering an additional 2 weeks leave on top of the current 18 weeks. “Grr parents, they barely do any work” Judith croons in your ear. Hold on now...is this true? Look at your colleagues who are parents. Do they actually do less work? Or are they extremely efficient workers, managing to balance parent teacher interviews alongside full time work? Disprove the stereotype.


Don’t self perpetuate

Could you be playing out a role in your own life? Sometimes stereotypes are self fulfilling - we believe that we should act a certain way, so we do. Have a look at your life and check to see whether this could be true for you. Are you holding yourself back from doing something or perpetuating something simply because you think it is what you are supposed to do?


WORK EXAMPLE Does the staff fridge need clearing out? Or the boardroom needs tidying after a morning tea? Notice who generally does this in your workplace… and next time something needs cleaned, watch yourself and check, are you falling into a traditionally gendered role?


Hopefully at least one of these tips speaks to you and you can start implementing it right away. So the next time a biased thought sneaks up on you, you can recognise it, stop it in its tracks then continue on with your day.


Authors Note: Generally unconscious bias stems from societal stereotypes, however the terms ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘stereotypes’ are used interchangeably throughout this article.


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Article as published in Human Resources NZ Winter 2018 magazine - https://drive.google.com/file/d/15N6VwEIIR8nepTp2r6y79igoKtkpPzah/view