Ten Bad Unconscious Bias Habits and How to Break Them

Unconscious leadership bias exists in every organization. Human brains are designed to be biased. Unconscious bias is the brain's way of sorting through millions of bits of information in an efficient manner. For thousands of years, bias has helped humans survive threats in their environment.

 But the fourth industrial revolution is finally time for a change! On June 12, 2017, more than 150 CEOs made a historic pledge to speak out against unconscious bias and advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

The three commitments in the CEO pledge include:

1) Making their workplaces trusting places where people can have complex and sometimes difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion,

2) Implementing and expanding unconscious bias education, and

3) Sharing best--and unsuccessful--practices to promote shared learning. 

As this pledge suggests, unconscious bias is a real barrier to inclusion and performance. But why are so many CEOs committed to this pledge? And why now?

Fourth industrial revolution (4iR) labor statistics show, we have a big talent supply and demand problem on our hands. The companies that will win over the best talent will be those that demonstrate a sincere commitment to a diverse and an inclusive workplace. 

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Unconscious biases stem from the human tendency think a certain way. They're "unconscious" because they happen so fast that we're often completely unaware of them. And they're "biases" because they can result in irrational decisions that lack sound judgement.

Here are ten common sources of unconscious bias. 

 1. Selective perception--When we see only what we want to see and forget things that contradict our existing beliefs or make us uncomfortable. 

2. Primacy/Recency Effect--The tendency to more easily recall information that came first or last in a long series. 

3. Social comparison--The tendency to preserve our evaluations of our self by comparing ourselves to others.

4. Halo effect--A confirmation bias where positive feelings in one area (e.g., attractiveness) leads us to attribute other positive characteristics to ambiguous or neutral characteristics. 

5. Horns effect--Also know as the reverse halo effect wherein we let an undesirable trait impact our evaluation of other traits of a person, group, or brand.

6. In-group bias--The tendency to give preferential treatment to people we perceive to be members of our own group.

7. Out-group homogeneity bias--The tendency to see members of our own group as relatively more varied than members of groups different from our own.

8. Trait ascription bias--The tendency for individuals to view their own personality, moods, and behavior as more variable and others' as more predictable.

9. Group attribution error--The biased belief that characteristics or preferences of an individual group member are reflective of the group overall. 

10. Fundamental attribution error--The tendency to over-emphasize personality-based explanations of others' behavior and underemphasize situational influences on others' behaviors. 


As a leader, part of what you get paid to do is to be more self-aware and discerning than others. This means mastering your thinking, being mindful, and overcoming unconscious biases.

Here are five actions for overcoming unconscious leadership biases.

1. Slow down. One thing that all unconscious biases have in common is that they're mental short cuts. This is because, as Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, the brain is lazy. It wants to go on auto-pilot. To overcome unconscious bias, you have to slow the mind down. 

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2. Gain experience. Get out and experience people, places, and things that are different from your everyday routine. The more variety you see in the world, the more variety you'll see in other people. 

3. Trash your biases. Write your biases about different groups down. Say them out loud. Listen to how irrational and illogical they sound. Then throw the paper (and your biased thinking) in the trash.

4. Be present with another. Start a conversation with someone who is different from you and be fully present. No cell phones, no agenda. Ask a few powerful questions and listen: "What led you to your current position? What do you feel is the purpose of your life's work? What's been the most important turning point in your career?" 

5. Observe human interaction. Don't judge. Don't categorize. Just observe others. Airports are great for this. Notice the humanity that you share in common. If you can't see the connections, go observe children from different backgrounds interacting. They don't seem as taken by their unconscious bias as you and I do. 


While these small steps might not eliminate unconscious bias in the world of work, they are steps in the right direction. I commend the CEOs who are taking action to challenge unconscious bias and create safe spaces for dialogues about difference. Diverse and inclusive workplaces are essential for the future of work.

​I want to hear what your best practices are for overcoming unconscious bias. Leave a comment in the section below. Share a success or failure. What did you learn from it? 

I look forward to hearing from you in the future! ​

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Chris Groscurth, Ph.D.

Chris Groscurth, Ph.D., is author of Future-Ready Leadership: Strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For the past 20 years he has worked as a researcher and strategic advisor to leaders across healthcare, finance, manufacturing, government and education. In addition to his consulting work, Chris addresses thousands of leaders annually through speaking engagements and workshops. Throughout his career, he has held leadership positions with Gallup, the University of Michigan, and Trinity Health. Chris currently leads Stryker's global learning design and development team, shaping the future of leadership in a high-growth medical technology company. Chris received his doctorate in human communication processes from the University of Georgia and has bachelor's and master's degrees in human communication studies from Western Michigan University.

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