Busting Unconscious Biases - By Harlina Sodhi

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Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis has likened the human mind to an iceberg. The part that does the conscious thinking frames only 5% of our response; the remaining 95% is decided by our unconscious mind. And like an iceberg, the more important part of the brain is the one you cannot see. To illustrate, all of us have come across incidents or have unconsciously made choices that did not match the facts present before us but instead, seemed to be driven by some preconceived notion or preference. There might have been no concrete evidence to support these decisions yet we would have considered our actions well justified.

In our jobs, we can easily witness the unconscious mind at work when:

  • The same employees are the butt of all jokes on the floor
  • Genuine out-of-the-box ideas coming from “certain” persons are dismissed or ignored
  • Employees following strict office hours are not given challenging projects
  • Team members who do not work over the weekends around project deadlines are assumed to be not very committed.
  • Work-from-home and flexible working hours are seen as privileges and such employees’ promotion is often delayed.
  • We conjure up images of people simply based on what we hear about their profile, age, or gender.


As per Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, in the U.S. population, while only 14.5% of all men are six feet or over, 58% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are so tall. Since no one would consciously set out to select CEOs based on their height, this example highlights how our minds unconsciously imagine a successful leader as someone tall who people can figuratively look up to. Unconscious bias, therefore, represents all the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.

People who engage in this unthinking discrimination are not aware of the fact that they do it – David Williams, PhD. Harvard School of Public Health.

The fact that it is unconscious, however, does not make bias any less damaging. Behaviours motivated by stereotyped beliefs and biases can:

  • Undo an organization’s best efforts to encourage diversity
  • Compromise mutual respect between colleagues
  • Drive away talented workforce
  • Result in prejudiced and defensive behaviour
  • Erode the organization’s inclusive culture


Even if the organization manages to retain its diverse talent, it may fail to derive the benefits of inclusivity in its truest sense. The simmering resentment or angst of overlooked employees, if allowed to persist, may even blow up into serious crimes or pubic outbursts of pent up frustrations such as the type exposed by the recent #MeToo movement, ruining the organization’s work culture and credibility. As Howard Ross, founder of Cook Ross Inc puts it,

“Unconscious perceptions govern many of the most important decisions we make and have a profound effect on the lives of many people in many ways.... Unconscious patterns can play out in ways that are so subtle they are hard to spot.” (Source: CDO Insights)

 Especially at mid-senior levels, where recruitments happen through referrals, an unconscious leaning towards an overdose of likeminded persons can have a degenerative effect on diversity.

A prominent example is the bro-culture that a popular private transport operator was unconsciously promoting, resulting in the company taking the concerns of women employees and customers on sexual harassment too lightly. It today faces multiple lawsuits and has not only lost credibility with customers but has also driven away promising female talent.

Given how subtly unconscious bias works, we have often seen leaders struggling to identify these biases in themselves and their teams. Their next big struggle has been to implement the required measures to train employees to be cognizant of such behaviour and eliminate it. Most often, organizations opt for one-off awareness programs which, while creating awareness on the subject, do not follow through with the required training for dealing with the deep rooted beliefs or pre-empting biased behaviour.

There is no single corrective action for dealing with unconscious bias as the next employee that joins the company is bound to bring his or her own bias along. People are after all a sum total of their experiences, beliefs, and observations. There are, however, some behaviours we can adopt and discard to start with.

What we Should Not do

What we Should do

  • Feel guilty about our biases
  • Accept that bias comes naturally to all of us.
  • Label people with biases as good or bad
  • Identify the triggers for biased behaviour so that we can control our responses
  • Try to “fix” people who show biased behaviour.
  • Challenge our opinions and beliefs


For the long run, organizations need a sustainable strategy that not only helps to consciously identify bias but also avoid any damaging action that might arise out of it.

As Theresa McHenry, HR Director at Microsoft UK puts it,

“The point isn’t to get people to accept that they have biases, but to get them to see [for themselves] that those biases have negative consequences for others.” (Source: FT)

Diversity today being a business imperative, many organizations have taken the initiative to fix unconscious bias in their employees. AirBnB is a positive example of an organization actively working to eliminate biases and discriminatory hiring.

As a responsible leader:

  • Do you wonder, “To what extent is my organization’s culture getting affected by unconscious bias?”
  • Do you want to create a more level playing field at your workplace?
  • Despite your best efforts, are women at your organisation still talking about the glass ceiling?
  • Do you want to create a strong pipeline of women leaders?
  • Do you want to be the “go to person” for busting biases and stereotypes and creating a forward looking culture?

Believe in Yourself (BIY) has been working with senior leaders in the industry to bring due attention to unconscious bias and help companies tackle the different types of biases on priority.

BIY's program, "U&I - Busting Unconscious Biases" , helps to break the myths that surround unconscious bias and provide a clear perspective of its drivers. 

Our comprehensive training program is meant to:

  • Guide employees and HR teams to introspect and understand how the information they unknowingly absorb from events and experiences subsequently influences their future actions.
  • Sensitize employees about unconscious bias.
  • Coach leaders to carry forward the learnings and achieve inclusivity in their teams.
  • Administer a tool for identifying triggers of biased behaviour.

Equipped with these learnings, the next time your employees are at the verge of forming an opinion or tilting towards a preference, they will stop and question their assumptions and reasons. Read more on this and our other organization building initiatives and programs on our website, http://www.believeinyourself.co.in.


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