What’s wrong with me? The impact of unconscious bias

Concerns about unconscious bias and disability in the workplace.

Just 2% of us claim to have a disability bias when asked but last year The Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei) published a report highlighting that one in three people show an unconscious bias against those with a disability – making it higher than levels of bias on the basis of gender or race.  As there are estimated to be over 6.9 million disabled people of working age in the UK, HR Departments need to consider what might be happening in their own workplaces. The test enei used to assess unconscious bias for their report was Implicitly® designed by Dr Pete Jones. ———————————————————————————————————————

Listen now to the webinar Dr Pete Jones ran for Talent Innovations “A level playing field? How unconscious bias could be impacting your HR processes”

Dr Pete Jones, Author ImplicitlyAccording to Dr Pete “Everyone has prejudices.  Prejudgments (judging others before we know them) are the result of our life experiences, socialisation with other people and exposure to the media.” It is his view that it is normal for us to associate or ‘categorise’ people and ideas.  This categorisation, which takes place automatically and at great speed, enables us to know how to act or expect others to act in each new situation by comparison to previous experience or expectations.  We all learn the stereotypes and have these biases ready to use, whether we condone them or not.  However, strong negative associations such as those measured in the Implicitly® test often influence our behaviour towards disabled people, associations formed (solely or mainly) on their group membership.  We sometime make judgments and decisions about people and situations which are wrong because our categorisation processes can be irrational and laden with emotional ‘baggage.’  These categories can also be difficult to change, partly because they are so useful and convenient in helping us to assess situations and people quickly. Implicitly measures our unconscious thoughts and feelings towards Disabled people by measuring how strongly we associate Disabled people with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ stereotypes.  Most of the time, these hidden thoughts and feelings do not cause problems for us or other people.  The fact that we are unaware of them is not a problem.  However, certain thoughts and feelings, solely on the basis of a person’s group membership (in this instance, being Disabled) do begin to impinge on our behaviour.  Because we are unaware of that thought or feeling, we are also unaware of the way it is affecting our behaviour and how this impacts on others.  This lack of awareness means that we are unable to control or manage those behaviours.  Most people would prefer to be in control of what they are doing and how they appear to others. Dr Pete has represented this idea in the diagram here:Unconscious Bias Johari from Talent Innovations

  1. Unknown and Unseen Some of our thoughts and feelings are below our level of consciousness.  They are passive and do not impinge significantly on our behaviour (as they are unseen by others).  We are not managing these thoughts and feelings, they are simply not on our radar.
  2. Known and Unseen Some thoughts and feelings we are aware of but they too are passive and do not lead to us acting any differently.  These are preferences or things we perhaps don’t feel strongly about, certainly not strongly enough for it to change the way we behave.
  3. Unknown, Uncontrolled but Seen Some unconscious associations are more active and are having an impact on our behaviour, but we are unaware of them.  These are the associations Implicitly picks up on.  Often the behaviours are subtle, such that nobody would describe them as overtly discriminatory, but they act together to exclude Disabled people, who are the subject of these subliminal thoughts and feelings.  We call these subtle behaviours ‘micro-behaviours.’  Micro-behaviours will often have a trigger in our past experiences.  For example, when we meet similar situations or similar Disabled people they could evoke the same strong thoughts and emotions as they did at an event in the past.  We can also develop those associations by listening to what other people have said and from what we have seen in the media.  Because we are unaware of these subliminal associations, we often don’t have strategies for recognising and managing them.  They can spill over into our behaviours and this can be intensified when we are under pressure, stressed, anxious or have other intense emotions.  Even if we are aware of how we think or feel, not recognising when those associations may be actively influencing our behaviour means we are not fully in control.
  4. Known and Seen, but Controlled and Managed  By raising your awareness of the unconscious thoughts and feelings you have which may well be driving your ‘micro-behaviours’ we enable you to control (or at least manage) the behaviours.  Once you can recognise your associations and how they affect your thinking, emotions and behaviour, as well as the situations or people which trigger those responses, you are on the way to managing them.  We use the term ‘manage’ because some associations will be very resistant to change.  However, by recognising them you can at least guard against their effects, even if you can’t change them completely or straight away.

Have a listen to the webinar that Dr Pete Jones recently presented for Talent Innovations on the subject of unconscious bias  A level playing field? How unconscious bias could be impacting your HR process Enei makes recommendations to employers to reduce the impact of unconscious bias against disabled people in the workplace.  To see the full research study “Disability: A Research Study on Unconscious Bias” from enei, click here.