6 common types of unconscious bias in the workplace

Working on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, a lot of questions we receive from clients are about hacking unconscious biases. Unsurprisingly, there are a few biases that can be found in almost every organization, no matter its location, impacting employee wellbeing, development, team performance, leadership and overall company culture.

Unconscious bias

A bias is a prejudice in favor or against a thing, a person or a group compared with another. Biases alter your perception of a situation or a person either positively or negatively, which often happens unconsciously.

We like to say “If you have a brain, you have bias” since bias is the result of our brains’ tendency to process information via unconscious associations and feelings. Biases can surface when our brain takes shortcuts by using stereotypical images and memories to assess situations and react to others.

However, we cannot blame our brain for everything. Time after time, we hear client stories that confirm how workplace biases surpass the individual level and have become part of team dynamics, leadership styles and organizational culture. This means that the change strategy needed to hack biases should go beyond individual awareness and break down structural biases.

Reoccurring biases at work

Academics have defined over 200 biases. Many of these simultaneously influence our behavior. Six unconscious biases that occur regularly in the workplace are confirmation bias, affinity bias, gender bias, ethnicity bias, groupthink and stereotypes.

1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias describes your underlying tendency to notice, focus on and embrace information that fits with your existing beliefs. Once you believe something, you will only see what confirms your belief. Confirmation bias happens when you go into tunnel vision: only hearing and seeing what you want to. It often manifests itself as a "gut feeling", thinking "I knew I was right" or saying "I told you so".

2. Affinity bias

Affinity bias describes the unconscious tendency to prefer people who are similar to you in terms of identity traits, interests, experiences, and background. You are drawn to people who are like you, who belong to your in-group. This leads you to think more positively of them, show more empathy, trust them more easily, and it makes you more likely to collaborate with them. We call this the “similar to me” effect.

3. Gender bias:

Gender bias is a preference for one gender over the other, or prejudice based on gender stereotypes.

How you express gender bias depends on the stereotypical gender roles you have internalized through your upbringing, culture, education, past experiences and the society around you. It is important to realize that personality traits or skills are not linked to someone’s gender. The challenge with gender bias is to counter what you expect men, women, genderqueer or genderless people to act like and approach each person with an open mind.

4. Ethnicity bias

Ethnicity bias means demonstrating a preference for or against a group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage.

You will project a fixed, overgeneralized belief about a particular group of people onto any individual that you believe to share the same ethnic identity. However, ethnic identity is not related to personality, characteristics, skills etc. Without getting to know someone personally, you can never know if you made a correct assessment of them.

5. Groupthink

It can be hard to think and act independently in teams or group situations. Groupthink manifests itself when you feel a desire to conform to the majority’s opinion to reach a quick decision or avoid conflict, even when you have different ideas. You will adjust or hide your opinion and openly agree with the team. The group experiences a “false” feeling of consensus, and an opportunity to innovate or truly search for the best solution is left aside.

Groupthink can happen in any work environment, but those where time pressure is high and fast decision-making is demanded, are more vulnerable to it.

6. Stereotypes

You form an idea of someone based on the group they seemingly belong to. Because we label people quickly and decide on their believed group membership in an instant, we do not check if what we think we know about them is true. Stereotypes can cover racial and ethnic groups, gender identity, age, religion, nationality, sexual orientation and many others. The result is oversimplified stereotypical images of others that do not do justice to the wonderfully complex and unique people they are.

If learning how to recognize and hack 200 biases feels a bit overwhelming, start by getting more acquainted with these six first. Discover more about how they manifest, the impact they have at work and most importantly how to hack these unconscious biases in our Hack Your Bias® eLearning.