As global teams become the norm at work and in school, part of developing yourself as a global citizen and competent team player involves managing your interactions with your colleagues and peers. One area to look out for is that of unconscious biases. While biases are a biological adaptation to help our brains process information quickly, this has potential detriments in today’s complex society, especially when biases tap into incorrect and hurtful stereotypes. Unconscious biases hinder our ability to work with others if not dealt with appropriately; at best, such biases disrupt communication and our perception of team members. At worse, they severely compromise our relationships and networks with colleagues, peers, and superiors.
In general, one can mitigate the effects of unconscious biases by developing empathy for others. Through understanding someone else’s perspective, you gain an insight into their behaviour, emotions, and thoughts. Developing empathy requires an innate desire to connect with your colleagues on a more personal, human level and be willing to see things from others’ viewpoints. By accumulating, refining, and curating the information you have about others’ perspectives, along with how you relate to those experiences, you can manage unconscious biases well, even if you are unaware of them yet.
Nonetheless, it is prudent to engage in self-reflection to see if you have any unconscious biases of your own and strike at the root of the problem. Learning to manage biases will make you a more effective and empathetic member of your team. Here are five unconscious biases to watch out for and how best to manage them.
Also known as similarity bias, this unconscious bias refers to favouring individuals who share similar traits with ourselves. Such traits may include working styles or subject-matter fields or even arbitrary characteristics such as educational background, age group, or appearance. This bias is prevalent throughout our lives, albeit mostly harmless; it is perfectly normal to gravitate towards similar people. After all, that is how friend groups are formed – it is always easier to connect with others who share something in common.
However, affinity bias hinders the effectiveness of teams as it becomes easy to dismiss the views and perspectives of others who we do not regard as similar. In turn, insulating ourselves within an echo chamber of like-minded individuals may cause us to lose out on good ideas. Diversity should not be dismissed out of hand based on arbitrary traits, as teams comprising individuals with myriad backgrounds can tap on different sets of skills and ideas to provide the best possible solutions.
When evaluating team members’ points, ask yourself these questions as part of your unconscious bias test: how much does this person’s background affect my perception of them? Do I appreciate their way of thinking because it resembles mine, is it a genuinely good idea? Similarly, do I dislike others’ ideas because they are different, or can I rationally justify my objections to their proposals? If in doubt, try calling upon neutral team members to assess the ideas to ensure any affinity biases are kept in check.
This unconscious bias involves incorrectly assigning explanations for someone’s behaviour, experiences, or achievements. Our brains assign reasons for others’ actions based on the information at its disposal; an incomplete set of information gives rise to attribution bias. This might include believing someone to have a cold disposition if they do not smile at you while in the elevator or have poor self-discipline when they submit their work late. More insidiously, attribution bias may lead us to chalk someone’s achievements down to luck or a favourable background while writing off others as incompetent for simple mistakes.
If attribution bias remains unsolved, this hinders communication and strains networks if our relationships are dominated by perceptions rather than understanding. There are numerous non-malicious, reasonable explanations for others’ actions and experiences. Your peers’ dispositions may be caused by external factors beyond their control, such as anxiety for an upcoming project or issues in their personal life. Someone’s achievements or lack thereof may not be directly linked to their background. Reaching out to your team members instead of countering attribution bias may strengthen your relationships with them by showing them kindness and empathy.
In addition to directly connecting with your team members, testing yourself for unconscious bias might comprise these questions: What performance indicators exist for my team member? Have I given sufficient thought to their roles in projects and their contributions towards their failure or success? Do reasonable explanations exist for their behaviour?
Confirmation bias refers to favouring information that aligns with our narratives, experiences, and ideas. Once again, confirmation bias can exist in a non-malicious state; it comforts us to have our worldview reinforced by similar pieces of information, and rejecting alternative perspectives can provide an essential sense of constancy. However, this may result in cherry-picking information to selectively support our opinions, often at the expense of contrary facts that should instead challenge our preexisting beliefs.
If left unchecked, confirmation bias props up harmful modes of thinking that become self-sustaining at a certain critical mass. At its least harmful, confirmation bias reduces team effectiveness when members become critical and unreceptive of opinions that do not resemble their own. At worse, confirmation bias warps our sense of reality, leading to highly selective treatment of others, a glaring lack of empathy, and further reinforcement of other unconscious biases. To say that confirmation bias is a hindrance would be a gross understatement of the potential harm it can cause.
Dealing with confirmation bias requires us to evaluate ourselves constantly: are we justified in our belief in our ideas? What part of us motivates our rejection of contrary or opposing viewpoints? To better judge ourselves and our views, it is best to seek out the opinions and perspectives of others and to do so with an open mind. By actively questioning and removing harmful preconceptions, we can effectively mitigate confirmation bias.
This bias occurs more frequently in teams; it is when the views of others influence one’s viewpoints and override our independent thinking capabilities. Ultimately an extension of social learning, conformity bias comprises reading and accepting social cues for appropriate behaviour within the group to better help yourself fit in. Peer pressure is a perfectly understandable stressor for anyone, but allowing conformity bias to supersede your perspective does no one any favours.
Since groups thrive from active participation and mutual feedback, conformity bias erodes the robustness of the team by discouraging new viewpoints and breeding self-censorship. Deference to the norm may facilitate cohesion in the short run but compromises the group’s ability to adapt to new situations that require novel ideas down the line. Ironically, well-facilitated disagreements and discussions breed trust within the group to cooperate despite different viewpoints.
Checking yourself for conformity bias might look like this: Am I comfortable sharing my views with my team? Does my group’s dynamics foster open discussion, or do some voices dominate over others? How best can we encourage contrary viewpoints while also providing a welcoming environment for team members? Take an active role by seeking out potential concerns of your teammates in private if necessary. A little effort here will go a long way in developing strong bonds within the group.
This effect refers to reductively assigning value to someone’s words and actions based on a limited prior experience. A positive experience might cause you to overvalue the opinions of your teammate, while a negative experience might prompt you to diminish their viewpoints subconsciously. The Halo/Horns Effect is a quick way of assessing your comfort level around specific individuals. Still, it does little to accurately assess the strength of ideas or even the strength of your relationship with others.
If your opinion of someone is already skewed while evaluating their ideas, this can lead to potentially unnecessary conflict or even the loss of valuable ideas and team members. Without giving someone the benefit of the doubt or level-headedly analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of their proposals, decision-making within the group degrades due to personal, unresolved biases towards each other. This hindrance can lead to inefficient allocation of resources and personnel, severely hindering team effectiveness.
Managing the Halo/Horns Effect requires you to focus on well-rounded evaluations of people and their actions: What are each team members’ respective strengths and weaknesses? Can their apparent traits be explained by other factors, such as their prior experiences or culture? Are my preferences contributing to my favourable or unfavourable perception of my teammates?
With the right tools, mindset, and people, unconscious biases can not only be overcome, but they can also be an opportunity to grow. By identifying one’s blind spots, you can highlight paths to improvement and develop your empathy and intellect to become a well-rounded, competent team player.
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