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Unconscious Bias – Traversing From Awareness To Action

Unconscious Bias – Traversing From Awareness To Action

15 Jul, 2021

The last year has been described as a horrific series of “Un”s – uncertain, unprecedented, unforgiving, to name a few. It has also amplified some key “Un”s (elements) of human behavior – both the good and the bad. While it has taught us the power of unity and unwavering spirit, it has also put a spotlight on unconscious biases that may divide us.

Also known as hidden or implicit biases, unconscious biases are embedded within a blind spot of our brain, and can influence our thoughts, opinions, and behaviors without permission of the beholder.

Unconscious biases are like body odor – everyone has it; it is no one’s fault that we have it. Most of the time, we are not even aware of it. Sometimes other people may point out that it is offensive, and when that happens, it is our responsibility to clean it up to benefit ourselves and everyone around us.

Much like anxiety worsens body odor by causing excessive sweating, biases too get magnified in situations of stress – the economic, social, and emotional turmoil that most of us are currently coping with will only exacerbate them. In the best case, biases assist in making instinctive judgement calls and enabling self-preservation in such trying times.

However, at the workplace, there is a high risk of our unconscious biases promoting insensitive or exclusive behavior. Lately, Inclusion & Diversity initiatives have been taking up the top spot in the list of priorities organizations have in order to improve the company culture and employee well-being. With more and more organizations adopting no-tolerance policies against racism, sexism, homophobia, casteism, and any other form of discriminatory behavior, it becomes imperative for employees and employers alike to be aware of their own biases, and maintain an open mind to identify and rectify these issues within themselves.

The Top 5 Unconscious Biases to Watch Out for in the Modern Workplace

Top 5 unconscious biases to be aware of

Attribution Bias

Judging a book by its ‘Title’

The tendency to make judgements and assumptions about both one’s own and others’ behaviors and actions, rather than be an objective perceiver.

  • The pandemic has highlighted the fact that every one of us may be fighting battles that others know nothing about. In these times, occasional delays/cancellations may not be tardiness, an abrupt response may not be out of disrespect, and a missed deadline may not indicate slacking off; others may exhibit behaviors that are a product of circumstance, not personality. So, organizations – leaders, managers, colleagues – be kind.

Affinity Bias

Undue favoritism

The tendency to gravitate/associate with people who we believe are like us, over those with whom we do not identify. This could be in terms of gender, age, race, nationality, education, upbringing, etc.

  • Especially when working in a virtual environment, leaders should seek talent outside of their “go-to” circles and typical profiles. This is particularly relevant when hiring, assigning projects, and nominating for opportunities.

Contrast Effect/Bias

Comparison breeding discontent

Setting the expectation and/or evaluating the performance of one person in comparison to another, often after interacting with both individuals either simultaneously, or in close succession.

  • With flexi-work, back-to-back calls, different “office” environments, and personal responsibilities (in addition to the fundamental diversity in working styles), leaders need to identify clear KRAs and quality/outcome metrics against which to measure performance of employees. This ensures fair, objective evaluation, although the method to achieve those outcomes may vary.

Confirmation Bias

Favoring the familiar

The undue influence of our personal experiences, beliefs, or preconceived notions (rather than hard facts) on the assumptions and decisions we make. It is the tendency to favor information that confirms beliefs we already hold.

  • In the absence of in-person casual conversations and workplace bonding opportunities, organizations need to focus on intentionally creating spaces that allow employees to interact more meaningfully and debunk certain misconceptions they may have had about one another. Allow superficial similarities to make way for deeper connections.

Groupthink Bias

Being carried by the tide

The tendency of adopting opinions of the majority and setting aside personal thoughts and beliefs, with the aim of achieving group consensus. This is a common occurrence in group discussions.

  • Teams work best when they leverage the different perspectives that are brought to the table. Especially with the lack of facial cues and body language for colleagues to pick up on, managers and employees should try to ensure all attendees in virtual group discussions get an opportunity to voice their opinions actively and openly. Intentionally testing assumptions and deploying the “six thinking hats1” approach during virtual brainstorming can help avoid groupthink.

In 2017, a global study2 reported that those who perceived bias were 3X as likely to plan on leaving their organization within a year and 4X as likely to feel alienated and demotivated at work. The study estimated the cost of workplace biases to amount to a whopping USD 450-550 Bn per year – and that was well before a global pandemic brought the world to its knees!

There has never been a more important time for organizations to invest in creating inclusive workplaces by unmasking biases – and the above understanding is a good place to start. But like all organizational change journeys, it leads to the next question: What are you going to do about it?

In his book ‘The Age of Insight,’ Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel states that as much as 90% of the human mind functions unconsciously. This indicates that biases are a reflection of conditioning, not of character. Rather than denying or ignoring them, approaching them with mindfulness and a desire to mitigate their negative impact, is a good place to start.


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Neutralizing Unconscious Biases

  • Pause to Ponder – Pay attention to the initial thought process and/or snap decisions that may influence actions.
  • Drive the Dialogue – Promote open expression, discussion, and training around biases to not only educate and build trust among employees but also reinforce core values. Getting experts involved and ensuring an open feedback loop with employees are key.
  • Monitor with Metrics – Have clearly defined and transparent criteria for evaluating employee qualifications and performance. Blind evaluations are a way to ensure employees are represented solely by their work and no other factors.

Just as awareness about one’s own body odor leads to action and eventual remedy, so too unmasking biases help in addressing them definitively. Do not wait for someone to bring attention to your organizational body odor – instead, acknowledge it, address it, and act on minimizing it – to benefit yourself and those around you. Each individual is an asset and it is the company’s responsibility to make sure nobody is disrespected or denied for who they are. While organizations may do their part in helping correct these biases as part of their Inclusion & Diversity drives, in the end, the change starts with and within each person. Lead with greater awareness of workplace biases, rather than as a consequence of them.

1: The Six Thinking Hats is a role-playing model presented by Edward de Bono in 1986.  It serves as a team-based problem solving and brainstorming technique that can be used to explore problems and solutions and uncover ideas and options that might otherwise be overlooked by a homogeneously thinking group.

2: University of Chicago & Harvard Business Review article: When Employees Think the Boss Is Unfair, They’re More Likely to Disengage and Leave

To know more about how you can unmask and address unconscious biases in the modern workplace, reach out to us at

  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Inclusion and Diversity
  • New Working Environment
  • Preventing bias
  • Unconscious bias
Priyanka Kumar, Engagement Manager, Zinnov
Nivedita Nanjappa, Project Lead, Zinnov
Priyanka Oza, Consultant, Zinnov

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