Decoding Unconscious Bias and Tips to spot it

There has been such a groundswell around Unconscious Bias. What is Unconscious Bias and how do you spot it? Is this focus on unconscious bias helping or hurting?

unconscious bias
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Decoding and dealing with Unconscious Bias can feel like you are fighting shadows… 

A few years ago, I was interviewing a candidate for a senior role at one of our manufacturing sites. She came across as a talented leader, who had a great depth of experience, and had been successful in an industry that had few women. I asked her if she had dealt with cultural barriers, challenges, unconscious biases in her career. Half way through my question, she jumped in to say, “Of course not!”, and sounded annoyed. She reminded me, of me. For years I thought, it is an equal playing field, and that your success has a 1:1 correlation with your talent. But, I wasn’t honest with myself. One of the biggest challenges in dealing with bias, is acknowledging that it exists, and calling it out. I have seen so many smart, talented leaders, struggle, hesitate and falter when faced with bias. I wondered why.     

I come from a background of strong female role models, excelled in school and in some sense felt privileged to be born in a generation where it seemed like the gender fight was over. Naive and starry eyed, I entered the corporate world. With the passion of a new bee and the drive to change the world, I went to my first big meeting. 

This meeting was led by a distinguished gentleman, I hold in high regard. As we brainstormed and debated merits of ideas, I jumped in with mine, with pride, excitement and anticipation. He ignored me. I thought I had made a fool of myself, till a few minutes later, he lauded another senior male colleague for coming up with it! I was confused and mortified at the same time. I thought it was my fault. This was the first of many incidents that left me perplexed. 

You might forget the instance, but you rarely forget the feeling of astonishment, feeling unworthy and small. One of the things we forget is that the people discriminating, against us, aren’t an ubiquitous ‘them’. It is more likely that they are colleagues you know well and think highly of. And that makes it incredibly hard to believe that they would do that to you. The face of discrimination isn’t a random stranger, it is people you know and value… that is the thing that blows my mind.

Is there a difference between unconscious bias, bias, prejudice, and discrimination?

“Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behavior”. It stems from stereotypes we use to organize our world, and deal with the complexity that surrounds us. There are 2 key points here: a) we stereotype, impacting our ability to see people as individuals, and b) we cannot control it.

There has been such a groundswell around the concept of Unconscious bias over the last few years. A google search gets you > 24 million results. It is everywhere! So, has it really helped the inclusion conversation; has it helped us increase diversity? The short answer, No. The outcome of unconscious bias, conscious bias, prejudice and discrimination is exactly the same; i.e. lower diversity, lower representation, lesser inclusion. So then, why all this attention on unconscious bias? Does it help us feel better, less guilty?

The wake up call: Unconscious bias is NOT the same as Unconscious action.

Having a bias, and actively acting based on it, are two completely different things. While unconscious bias may be unintentional, our behavior is always intentional. The lack of a clear intent to have positive impact on diversity, enables our biases to surface, leading to discrimination. Can we get away with saying that we can’t control our temper, at work? Then why can we get away with not being able to control our unconscious bias? Kristen Pressner’s #Flipittotestit , is a simple, but powerful, and valuable perspective on translating positive intent into positive action, by flipping the scenario to test your assumptions. 

How do you spot bias?

Unconscious biases reside in the grey. Those instances when your gut tells you there is something wrong, there is at the very least, something to look into. Unfortunately in our world today, many still deal with obvious and ugly incidents stemming from bias, from inappropriate jokes, ignorant and insensitive comments, micro-aggressions, harassment, etc., and my heart goes out to you. This post is about spotting the subtle ones.

Take a moment to reflect on the scenarios below:

You reach out to your manager for a career conversation, but it keeps getting rescheduled. You know your manager is extremely busy but you see them make time for your peers. One of the biggest indicators of unconscious bias, is where, and how our leaders spend their time and energy when interacting with colleagues. 

You are more confused after a career conversation, than you were before! Leaders should be able to understand your career aspirations and clearly articulate areas that you need to work on to get there. When leaders hide behind terms like executive presence, self confidence, questions around level of ambition, without any specifics, it may warrant some thought. 

You seek feedback, but leave empty handed. Leaders should be able to coach you, articulate clear development needs and support your growth. When leaders struggle to articulate a clear development need, and use the ‘Keep-doing-what-you-are-doing- and-you’ll-get-there’ non-feedback feedback, it may not give you the specifics you need, to learn and grow.

You take on additional responsibility, high risk projects, become the go-to person. However, as your colleagues get promoted, you wonder if you just fell off the radar. Skills and capabilities for a role are usually clear, but how we stack up against the same is subjective, and that can create space for bias. When you feel that the standards are different, jobs aren’t openly posted, promotions of your peers are puzzling, and the logic isn’t obvious, and you can’t figure out what it takes to move ahead because the roadmap isn’t clear, it may be time to listen to your gut.

If you have ever been in any of these situations and wondered, well, now you know. And, you are not alone.

These examples were about experiences with individual managers. What about organizations?

Are there lead indicators that make organizations (or pockets in an organization) more susceptible and may lead to higher probability of unconscious bias? 


Surprised? There are mountains of books that suggest that organization politics is good, and that political savvy (aka organization agility) is a critical business skill. And while there is some truth to that, there is a dark side. As with government, politics is about retaining power, in the hands of those who have it. If you have ever worked in a place where your colleagues talked about leaders having their chosen ones, where who you know was more important than what you did, where underground network of connections determined your career, you know exactly what I am talking about

Living in the grey

Yep, this is the grey that makes you uncomfortable… Lead indicators to look out for are; a) the rules of the game are not clear and processes and criteria for key people processes and decisions are ambiguous and lack transparency, b) organization structures are amorphous, and roles are deconstructed and reconstructed to further certain people and the logic is tenuous, at best. This can be referred to as Decision-based-principle-making!

In these scenarios, the Truth thrives in the grapevine. Gossip, rumors add toxicity to any workplace, however, in these situations as you listen to the shared jokes in the office, and see the pattern, you start to get a glimpse of what lies beneath.

If you have tips on how to spot unconscious bias at work, and ideas, experiences and insights on dealing with it, please do share and help others. In part 2, we will explore some of these ideas. 

As I close this conversation today, and hopefully begin many more, I’d like to leave you with a quote that resonated with me.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

C.G Jung

Please Note : The reflections in the post are my musings over the years, and do not represent my employers (current and former).

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