Opinion: A guide to busting unconscious bias

Experts offer a step-by-step guide for recognizing and responding to our own unconscious biases.  Photo by: Be the Change Madrid - 8 by rh2ox / CC BY-SA

This story is featured as part of the ongoing Women Working in Global Development Campaign, through a partnership between Devex and Quantum Impact.

Global development professionals have the amazing and challenging opportunity to solve complex problems across varied and often interconnected systems and disciplines. In our daily work, we process an overwhelming amount of information to make the best decisions and positively affect as many lives as we can.

The brain often deals with bombardment of information by taking shortcuts. One shortcut that the brain takes is to use our own background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes, and cultural context to help form decisions and actions without our awareness — we call these snap judgements, or unconscious bias.

Thankfully, there are concrete steps that we can all take to undo biased decision-making on a daily basis. By understanding our biases and making slight adjustments to counteract them, we find that we are capable of making more informed decisions and working more productively with a variety of people.

Here’s how:

Step 1: Become aware.

Bias can be most damaging in pressured moments of decision-making. Start by reviewing decision points at work where you may be relying on biased shortcuts.

To get started, here are three examples when common biases might impact the quality of your work and career in development:

Example 1: You had a great conversation with an expert who you really clicked with on a fact-finding trip, and end up designing a new program based largely on that one person’s viewpoints.

Bias: “Like me” bias is a tendency toward believing or valuing  people who make you comfortable or people who are like you more than others.

Example 2: You receive a grant proposal from a cooperating country organization who came highly recommended by a colleague. You were excited to receive their proposal, but the submission is not well researched. Although the other members of the grant committee are unimpressed, you convince them to approve the grant anyway.

Bias: “Confirmation” bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions while discounting evidence to the contrary.  

Via YouTube

Example 3: You are offered a project assistant job at an organization, and the salary offer is low but still within the range of what you were expecting. You assume this is probably not negotiable and accept right away.

Bias: “Anchor” bias is a tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered to us (the "anchor") when making decisions.

Once you uncover an area where you may have bias, write down a description of a situation when the bias took place. Explain who, what, where, when, and why. Now, consider how your decision-making could be improved if you became more conscious of the particular bias.

How to avoid gender bias in your job descriptions

Gender disparity in the workplace can start with gender bias in job ads. The language you use and the criteria you include could be discouraging women from applying and tipping the scale in the favor of men. Before you write another job ad, read these tips for avoiding gender bias.

Example: I notice that when I’m particularly passionate about an idea or project, I tend to ignore and brush aside concerns or fears from others (see: confirmation bias above). Listening to and addressing their concerns and factoring them into my decision-making will make me a better leader and teammate.

Becoming aware of our own biases may be the hardest step. If you are struggling to identify unconscious bias in your work, ask others who you trust and know you well for help.

Step 2: Find your trigger.

Write a list of all the situations in which you are most likely to experience your bias. Start to notice if you exhibit your biases in meetings, before a particularly tough decision, over email, when you talk to a specific group or person, or when you’re in certain moods (hungry, stressed or tired).

Example: I tend to brush aside concerns most in meetings with others. I notice that a trigger for me is when someone says, “I don’t want to confuse things, but I’m concerned about ...,” I tend to stop listening or jump in to interrupt without fully considering their opinion.

Step 3: Slow down.

Research shows that bias happens more often when we are rushed, stressed, or excited. Research also shows that taking a pause can help us switch off the “flight or fight” automatic brain response and improve our ability to engage in rational thought.

When you notice a trigger, try one of these techniques to take a pause:

1. Take three deep and slow breaths.
2. Count back from 10.
3. Lean back from your desk and stretch your arms.
4. Close your eyes and imagine a loved one.

Example: When I notice myself wanting to interrupt others who have a different opinion, I will take a sip of water, and breathe deeply first before responding.

Step 4: Do one small thing differently.

Choose a simple action that can help you counteract snap judgements.  Research shows that repeating the same new action every time you experience your trigger for bias is the best way to retrain your neural pathway. When done enough, this new action can become habitual.

Example: After I’ve taken a deep breath or a sip of water, I will fully hear what they say without the intent to interrupt and consider their point before responding.

Now, give yourself a mental pat on the back for taking the time and effort to combat your unconscious bias! Research shows positive emotions help cement our ability to habitualized actions.

There are small steps you can take in your day-to-day life

Here are other examples of actions you can take to counter unconscious bias in 60 seconds or less:

• After a meeting, ask for feedback from a participant who wasn’t as vocal at the meeting and take one minute to seriously consider their opinion.
• If you organize or lead a meeting, ask a different person to kick off each meeting for a variety of different perspectives.
• Every quarter, take time to schedule one meeting with someone who has a completely different background or set of ideas than you.
• In any stressful situation, take three deep and slow breaths and ask yourself if your assumptions are true before taking action.
• Before you make a crucial decision, schedule a meeting with someone and ask them to play the role of devil’s advocate.

Busting unconscious bias is not always easy, so remember to be kind to yourself and curious in the process! For more information on habit formation, visit us at www.thebeinglab.com. Or join us for our workshop in partnership with Quantum Impact: 60 Second Habits for Inclusive Leadership.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Cindy Chen

    Cindy Chen is founder of The Being Lab, helping learners thrive using science + design. Previously, Cindy worked as a coach, consultant, and product manager on Google's Wellness and Sustainable Performance team.
  • Farah Mahesri

    Farah Mahesri is co-founder of Quantum Impact, an education and youth specialist, and technology and partnership innovator based in San Francisco.