The concept of unconscious or implicit bias is coming more and more into the mainstream. It’s a deceptively neat phrase, one that can appear easy to grasp. As if we can pick it up and turn it round, examine what it entails before ticking off that box: unconscious bias, understood, done.
But while we leaders who don’t suffer from anxiety and depression might have familiarised ourselves with the basics of, say, mental health awareness quite enough to make a real difference to our teams, unconscious bias is a very different beast. Why? Because it is huge and it is deeply coded into all of us – it is part of the fabric of our minds. Decoding and unpicking it is a lifetime’s difficult work.
As this fascinating Guardian article reveals, unconscious bias may well have evolutionary roots:
Scientists believe that stereotypes in general serve a purpose because clustering people into groups with expected traits help us navigate the world without being overwhelmed by information. The downside is that the potential for prejudice is hard-wired into human cognition.
For me, there’s the rub. Unconscious bias comes naturally to us. So my take is that we should not beat ourselves up for it existing in us – but we should challenge ourselves to combat it. And doing that will be a lifetime’s work, because unconscious bias is a ‘natural’ part of being human. We will always be battling ourselves.
So are we up for it? We must be. It would be easy to pretend it isn’t happening, but it would be shameful to do so. If you’ve not engaged with unconscious bias, you could give this test a go – but bear in mind that much of the unconscious bias testing has been criticised for its scientific rigour.
Still, that’s not to say unconscious bias doesn’t exist. Far from it. Its sheer insidiousness might well account for the difficulty of successful testing. It’s on all of us to look honestly at ourselves. We cannot depend on research bodies to come up with neat and efficient ways of eradicating our unconscious bias.
I could make the business case, as I often have done, for inclusion and diversity but I feel that would be a sweetener: the fact is that if we leaders engage with this issue as we should, our life just got a whole lot harder.