Deborah Richards (Diversity and Inclusion leader for UK and Ireland) gives a brief introduction to unconscious bias, a global training program at IBM.
So what is ‘Unconscious Bias’? It is one of those terms you hear being used as part of management speak, that curious language of business that does nothing to help you understand what the speaker is talking about.
Unconscious bias is actually a really important topic as it impacts our decision making in every aspect of our lives, and although we cannot fundamentally change our biases, by developing awareness of them helps us to make better informed and more balanced choices. We are all biased, and we use these biases to make decisions every day. Biases are not necessarily a bad thing; however by developing a greater awareness of them is important.
Our brains are inundated with information from all the senses, and from all the technologies we now use; so how do we cope with this mass of information? The brain has what Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow two modes of operating System 1 and System 2.
System 1 brain is our “autopilot” – it is constantly making sense of the world around us and taking the initiative to simplify our world so we limit the amount of energy our brain is using. Anything you do without thinking like brushing our teeth, driving a car, or avoiding an obstacle when walking is System 1 at work.
System 1 works to simplify the world and process as much information as possible in order to preserve energy and resources for the operation of System 2. Daniel Amen, a renowned psychiatrist and brain imaging expert, estimates that 30% of the energy used by our body is used by our brains, so the brain has adapted to push as much incoming information as possible into System 1 so we conserve energy. In fact, the research varies, but anywhere from 60 – 90% of our brain activity is unconscious.
System 2, on the other hand, is reflective, slower, because we are demanding that it process more complex information. It requires a lot of energy. It is deliberate, and when we have a complex problem, System 2 will step in to gather, synthesize, and process information to solve it.
System 1 thinking is making its decisions on our prior experience; it makes assumptions and reaches conclusions without you even being aware of it. These can be based on your cultural background, faith, belief systems and a whole range of factors, and these decisions might be biased against certain types of people or certain courses of action. Developing an awareness of your blind spots helps you to view people and situations in a fairer and more balanced way.
This topic is particularly important in the world of work where you want to attract and hire diverse talent, and to develop and promote that talent once it is has joined the workforce. It does not make good business sense to only hire or promote in your own likeness, as this leads to teams that lack creativity and understanding of the needs of diverse clients.
To understand your own biases take the Harvard Implicit Association Test, try to complete at least 3 of the tests. According to the authors of Blind Spot – individual test results rarely reflect what the individual expects. So be prepared for a surprise.
It is because of initiatives like this that IBM have won a vast number of awards for Diversity and Inclusion see some of these awards here.
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