Unconscious bias affects us all. No matter how much we believe we are rational and objective, when we are firmly attached to personal preferences and beliefs, we make mistakes in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, and other cognitive processes. It is important to realize that we cannot avoid cognitive biases. Since they are often unconscious, it is not enough to promise ourselves that we will not repeat them. We need to find an effective way to reduce their impact on our business.

These are the four basic unconscious biases that can affect how you lead your team and the decisions you make.

1. Affinity bias

Affinity bias refers to the tendency to favour people who are similar to us. This can be especially pronounced in the process of recruitment and promotion when people are more willing to give priority to a candidate because they notice similarities with them. We’ve all heard the phrase, “You remind me of me at that age,” so we understand how such a sense of closeness can result in favouritism. Unfortunately, due to affinity bias, minorities will most often find themselves at a disadvantage. Research shows that affinity bias can also be seen in men who are generally committed to equality and do not express prejudice against other groups. This is because their bias is unconscious. Therefore, in this context, those leading the recruitment process need to rethink the way they make decisions.

2. Confirmation bias

The bias of confirmation speaks to our tendency to seek and perceive information that supports our existing beliefs. This could be a problem for leaders when they need to be open to feedback and new solutions that they may not have favoured in the past.

If you have already decided that a particular path is the best, because of the bias of confirmation, you will value the evidence that supports your plan more than the evidence that could distract you from it. For the same reason, you could ignore helpful feedback, reject innovative ideas and solutions, and end up making the wrong decision for your people and company.

To avoid confirmation bias when making decisions, look for ways to rethink what you think you see. Seek information from different sources and discuss your thoughts with different groups of people. Then share the information you received with a wider group of collaborators for a better discussion. For important decisions, consider assigning the role of an opponent to a team member.

3. Bias of conservatism

Similar to affinity bias and affirmation bias, conservatism bias favours familiarity. In this case, the person favours existing information because new information "threatens" their prejudices. When they get new information, that person doesn’t give them enough importance or rejects it while they take those who support their beliefs much more seriously. Although it now seems ridiculous to us that people once believed that the Earth was a flat plate, it took many years and a lot of effort to convince people otherwise. The bias of conservatism makes the process of managing change particularly challenging. Even where there are compelling reasons to change the way you do business, introduce new processes or change roles, the leader will stick to the old way of working. It's not just about stubbornness - such a person really doesn't see new information as important. Because of all of the above, leaders need to understand this form of bias to make the process of change easier for everyone.

4. Basic attribution error

The basic attribution error relates to our tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are. With this bias, personal characteristics are overemphasized when assessing one's behaviour, while situational factors are ignored. The leader will be greatly limited by the tendency to view employee behaviour as an inseparable and unchanging part of their personality. An employee who is regularly late can be "labelled" as lazy and unmotivated, but there may be someone at home who needs to be taken care of. In that case, the leader could allow them to start work later in the day or work from home when needed which could ultimately increase their productivity. If you are inclined to "blame" your employees for some behaviour that you think is a reflection of their character, stop and think. Ask yourself if there are any other explanations for their behaviour, and then approach the solution of the problem with a positive attitude.

Here's how to reduce unconscious bias and prejudice in employment

Unconscious bias can be particularly pronounced during the recruitment process. Companies often do not have a well-thought-out and developed recruitment strategy, nor the structure of the recruitment process itself, and this can contribute to the employer's unconscious bias in deciding who to hire.

It is the task of all those involved in the recruitment process, both human resources and senior managers, and all individuals who interview candidates or write job advertisements, to eliminate or at least minimize job bias and prejudice in recruitment. Namely, employers who have a diversity-oriented employment strategy, take into account a much larger circle of potential employees, instead of a narrow circle of stereotypically "favoured" groups for a job. In addition, companies that have gender, age, class, ethnically (etc.), diverse workers in their business can also better understand the wishes and needs of a much wider and more diverse circle of clients.

Here are some tips on how to improve your employment strategy and process, which will be oriented towards achieving diversity in the workplace.

1. Carefully creating a job ad is an important start

The language or discourse and style of writing job advertisements may discourage women and minorities from applying for a job vacancy at all. For example, if you're looking for a "killer sales consultant" in your ad, chances are that significantly more men than women will apply for those ads. It may sound banal, but choosing words is important.

2. Recommendations can also be a trap

In many companies, it is considered positive and productive when current employees recommend potential new employees. The logic is clear - those who already work in a company understand best what is expected of employees and can identify among their acquaintances' potential candidates who could do well in their company. Then where is the trap? In that we mostly hang out with people with whom we have the most in common, who are similar to us. Consequently, if a company relies too heavily on the recommendations of its current employees, new employees may multiply existing knowledge, skills and abilities rather than bringing new ones. On the other hand, to encourage diversity, the company can create and maintain networks with various professional associations, which, among other things, represent women and/or minority groups, and seek recommendations for candidates there as well.

3. An anonymous resume can help prevent bias and prejudice

The resume contains all the basic information that the candidates try to present to the company they hire. However, they often contain details that reflect someone's gender, social status, nationality or race, and because of which employers consciously or unconsciously reject some candidates without providing the right opportunity. For example, a study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that when auditioning for the orchestra, women who performed behind curtains so the jury would not see them were 50 percent more likely to enter the next round.

To reduce the impact of bias, one of the proposals is that the human resources departments, before forwarding the CVs to the commission that will conduct the selection of candidates, remove from them (with the necessary coding) all identification elements. In this way, the commission could pay more attention to the specific qualifications and experiences of the candidates.

4. Companies need to have a diverse base of contacts and candidates

Statistically speaking, if there is only one woman in the contact database of potential candidates, it will not improve the chances of a woman being employed. There must be more of them on the lists of possible employees for the probability of employing a woman to be higher. Candidates could be interviewed by several different individuals. If their evaluations of candidates are reviewed together, an unconscious bias of the individual can be avoided.

5. It is important to design the interview with the candidates well

Careful structuring of the interview will be needed, during which all candidates will be asked the same basic questions related to key aspects of the job. If an employer asks arbitrary and different questions to different candidates, it will be more difficult to compare them, and they are more likely to make a biased decision. Therefore, plan interviews, check that you have passed all the most important questions with all the candidates, take notes and conduct an evaluation during the interview to ensure that you have recorded the most important ones.