Unconscious Bias in the Workplace – Business Chemistry as a Solution?

What if you don’t know your own mind as well as you think you do?

In their 2013 book Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Binaji and Anthony Greenwald reveal some surprising statistics about how many of us have biases toward African Americans, women, the elderly, and many other classifications of people. We’re often unaware of these biases, and in fact, our conscious or stated attitudes may conflict with them.1

(You can test for your own hidden biases by trying out the Implicit Association Test but be warned, you may be unpleasantly surprised.)

Where do these biases come from? From your brain’s attempt to cope with the overwhelming amount of information it has to process every day. It simply can’t handle the data points rushing at it from every direction, and so your brain simplifies the world by categorizing just about everything, and that includes people. Essentially, it automatically engages in stereotyping.

I suspect most of us would prefer not to operate under the influence of unconscious biases and we’d likewise prefer that others don’t. When I’m speaking with a group of leaders I’d prefer that their brains aren’t homing in on the fact that I’m a woman, or that I have a slight Midwestern accent, or that I have blond hair–these characteristics should be irrelevant in that situation. But the research suggests that their brains likely ARE focused on these things and further, that they’re forming an impression of me based on the associations they have with those categories. Without knowing it, my audience members are likely deciding that I’m emotional (a common association with women), that I’m “Minnesota-nice,” and if they’ve heard too many blond jokes, well… it’s not good.

So, if we’d rather not be judging each other in this way, what can we do about it?

That’s where Business Chemistry comes in. I’ll suggest that one way to mitigate the impact of our brain’s unconscious categorizations based on workplace-irrelevant factors is by encouraging conscious categorization based on workplace-relevant factors. In other words, if the leaders I’m speaking with focus in on the fact that my Business Chemistry type is Guardian, the associations their brains are making will likely now be more relevant to the situation. Their impression of me now may be that I’m detail-oriented, meticulous, and risk-averse, and also that I’m likely to be a bit stubborn.

What I’m suggesting is something akin to taking away a pair of scissors that a toddler has gotten a hold of. You can snatch the scissors away, and you can try to reason with her, but replacing the scissors with a hand-mirror is probably a better bet.

I’m proposing that rather than simply trying not to have unconscious biases, or trying somehow to reason ourselves out of the associations we have, one of the simplest solutions may be to meet our brain’s fundamental need for categorization with a different way of categorizing–one we CHOOSE and are fully aware of.

There’s evidence that this type of replacement strategy works when we’re trying to break a habit, such as eating a donut each day as a mid-afternoon snack. Instead of just trying to resist the donut, it’s more effective to create a new routine that replaces the habit, like taking an afternoon walk.2 If unconscious categorization can be seen as a habit we’d like to break, then replacing it with a new routine, like focusing in on one’s Business Chemistry type, should help.

Is this the perfect solution to unconscious bias in the workplace? No, it’s not perfect. By definition, categorizing anything means simplifying, and that means overlooking some nuance. Maybe I’m a Guardian who is NOT stubborn, and now my audience will erroneously think that I am. You might suggest it would be better to get to know each and every person we encounter individually, and it probably would. But most of us encounter far too many people in a given week, or even in a given day, to get to know them all personally. So instead, I’ll recommend a couple of strategies for using this replacement approach responsibly:

  • First, remind yourself and each other often that categories are simplifications and must be taken with a grain of salt. One exercise that helps drive this home is for each member of a team to share and discuss one trait that is characteristic of their Business Chemistry type but does NOT apply to them personally.
  • Second, identify those individuals for whom it’s critical you get beyond categories to learn about their unique characteristics–maybe your boss, those who report to you, and anyone about whom you are making highly impactful decisions, such as whether to hire or promote them, or how to rate their performance.

What do you think? Could Business Chemistry help us reduce unconscious bias in the workplace?

Dr. Suz

Suzanne Vickberg, PhD (aka Dr. Suz)
Dr. Suz is the LCC’s very own social-personality psychologist, which means she studies how people’s thoughts, behaviors and preferences are influenced by both who they are and the situations they’re in. She uses Business Chemistry to help teams explore how the mix of perspectives brought by their individual members influences their work together. Follow her on Twitter @DrSuzBizChem

1 Binaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: The hidden biases of good people.Random House, Inc.
2 Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.Random House, Inc.

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5 thoughts on “Unconscious Bias in the Workplace – Business Chemistry as a Solution?

  1. Dear Suzanna,

    Thank you for your post. It did spark two questions on my end:

    Would in your proposed approach biases not replaced by a stereotyping approach, which by itself would also hold a bias or a risk of unintended programming. That is if I understand you well that the type as which you represent yourself would resonate in the perception of your counterpart?

    Would the change not rather need to come from the person you need in a sense that socio-economically he/she, when biased, takes the risk of not really learning who the person introduced to them really is and thus abandoning the chance of getting the full benefit of the (potential) business relationship?

    Best regards
    Ivor Brinkman
    Amsterdam/The Netherlands


    1. Yes I think we are essentially in agreement, Ivor. Replacing one way of categorizing with another way of categorizing is not the same as learning about each person in detail. But for most of us, we come across too many people in our lives to have the time and cognitive resources to understand them individually. If only we could do so! Further, unconscious bias has shown itself to be very difficult to overcome and we know that things that are difficult to overcome are better replaced by something else. Another example of this, beyond the donut habit, is negative thoughts of fears. Instead of trying to simply block out a negative thought or fear, it is more effective to focus on a positive thought. Thanks for your comment!


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