People don’t usually mean to behave in a biased manner or make others around them feel uncomfortable; many times, they aren’t even aware that they’re doing it when it happens. If such situations create problems in the workplace, those in leadership positions are responsible for addressing the unconscious biases of team members.
When employees and colleagues complain about a peer or a manager who seems to be operating under the influence of an unconscious bias, senior leadership must handle the issue delicately if everyone is to walk away with a lesson learned and more trust and confidence in each other.
Below, 14 members of Forbes Coaches Council share effective ways for a leader to help others recognize unconscious biases in themselves, get to the root of them, and begin to resolve the problems they cause.
1. Facilitate Self-Awareness
Some unconscious biases are actually stored in the preconscious mind. Increased self-awareness helps bring preconscious beliefs, thoughts and feelings into the conscious mind. Leaders can facilitate self-awareness by inviting team members to explore underlying biases and using a curious “I wonder if” mindset when thinking about perceived biases. – Ron Young, Trove, Inc.
2. Avoid Making Assumptions
Nothing provokes judgment quite as quickly as a situation already laden with judgment. Avoid making any assumptions about the situation and what is right or wrong, and check your temptation to do so. No one learns when they don’t feel safe. By approaching the situation with an eye for the big picture and a compassionate understanding that unconscious bias exists within all of us, you’ll help that employee be receptive to seeing and learning. – Tevis Trower, Balance Integration Corporation
3. Remember That It’s Not About You
I believe a fundamental philosophy of leadership is to embrace this concept: “It’s not about you.” This philosophy should be shared with team members and made a focal point of individual development. Through the application of this philosophy, a leader can get a team member to consider issues from the perspectives of others, and thereby help them identify and eliminate unconscious biases. – John Lowe, Ty Boyd, Inc.
4. Use Analogies To Uncover Blind Spots
If the individual demonstrates openness to exploring their unconscious bias, a conversation can be straightforward. However, they just may not see or understand it—not because of belligerence or unkindness but because it is a blind spot. In that case, analogies are incredibly helpful. Find a comparison that fits the individual and applies to the bias affecting others. Analogous experiences create empathy. – Leann Wolff, Great Outcomes Consulting
5. Communicate Empathy And A Desire To Understand
Bring empathy, compassion and a genuine desire to understand what might have prompted that person’s bias. Once the employee feels your care in recognizing their thoughts, feelings and wants, you can build a collaborative approach to heighten awareness of the unintentional impact of the bias on others and explore how the employee may communicate and interact to avoid the unconscious bias. – Valerio Pascotto, IGEOS
6. Counsel The Person On Their Perceived Bias
I would counsel the person that there is a perception that they have a bias. I’d be as specific as possible about that bias and share that the perception feels like reality to others, reminding them of our commitment to an inclusive, diverse environment. I’d encourage them to explore this bias with me or a diversity, equity and inclusion educator or coach to see what they can change to manage more inclusively going forward. – Jennifer Wilson, ConvergenceCoaching, LLC
7. Guide The Person, Not The Situation
Make sure you guide the person, not the situation. Most of the time, human beings do not understand their own biases and how they manifest. Instead of resolving situations, for example, a coach-leader can help employees look within themselves as human beings to create awareness around who they are, how they think and what they believe in, then reflect on how others get impacted by that. – Rajat Garg, Coach-To-Transformation
8. Leverage Behavioral Assessments
One process that reduces bias and boosts more objective hiring and talent development is the use of behavioral assessments. These research-supported assessments allow employee selection based on the behaviors essential for the position as well as the company’s cultural values. Specific behaviors that reflect the organization’s values and enhance team communication can also be coached and learned. – Cheri Rainey, Rainey Leadership Learning
9. Open A Dialogue With Employees
Deal with it head-on. Bring in the employees who have voiced complaints and/or issues and openly tell them that you’re listening to them and that you care about their opinions, and take notes. Depending on the seriousness of the nature of the complaints, assure them that you will address the issues directly with the manager, but that you want to hear their opinions too. As the wise saying goes, “Honesty is the best policy.” – Paul Silitsky, Paul Allen Career Advisory Group
10. Address The Belief System Behind It
Both unconscious and conscious biases have their roots in belief systems. Unless the belief system is addressed, change may be superficial. Having a conversation to get to the belief behind the bias would be step one. When the realization is achieved, the bias would no longer be unconscious; any future cause for concern will have a more rational basis than something as prejudiced as bias. – Sadhana Somasekhar, Platinum Infosystems Pvt. Ltd.
11. Share Feedback From Peers And Your Own Observations
Help the employee understand how they are being perceived and then discuss how it might impact the team and individual co-workers. Ask the employee to respond in terms of how they view and recognize their own behavior and keep it an open/safe dialogue by emphasizing your support and desire for them to be their very best in their role. – Mark Gasche, North Shore Career Management LLC
12. Approach In A Supportive And Serving Manner
Bringing attention to the issue is obviously the needed step, but in this situation the approach is key. When attacked, people will seek to protect and defend. If I want that person to receive this feedback well and be open to addressing those biases, then I usually approach them in a way that is not attacking but supporting and serving, so they understand I am seeking to help them. – Cole Taylor, The Starting Line
13. Create An Eye-Opening Experience
Create an eye-opening experience, but keep it safe and focused on learning. Too many people ignore these issues while others play the blame game. We must dive in. Experiential activities cause us to feel and explore our attitudes/beliefs. It is a moment of possibility. Combine that experience with a reflective and safe debrief to promote learning, understanding and crucial conversations. – Brad Federman, PerformancePoint LLC
14. Create Training On Common Scenarios
We created some training on common scenarios within the organization and then brought in actors to role-play the scenarios for every member of the staff to attend. This really landed well with the teams as they had no idea of the impact it was having on the company. You can also have HR anonymize resumes and remove university names to reduce the impact of initial bias in hiring. – Victoria Canham, Ahead Together Ltd