Understanding unconscious bias in the workplace

3 min read

Unconscious bias is how we make decisions based on our memory, without our awareness. We rely on our memory and forget to consider what the consequences of our actions can be.

Harvard University conducted the IAT test to measure how we form stereotypes. 76% of the test participants associated men with work and women with a family. This is an example of how we form stereotypes, irrespective of our own sex.

If we pay close attention, we can identify instances of making unconscious decisions. Some common implicit associations noted in workplaces are – preference of having taller men in positions of power like the C-suite. Hiring people who are attractive over overweight people, irrespective of their qualifications.

According to Daniel Kahneman’s research, our brain has 2 systems for thinking fast and slow. Thinking fast often results in unconscious, automatic, effortless decisions. Thinking slow results in deliberate, conscious, rational decisions. 98% of our thinking is fast, automatic evaluations based on associations from memory.

This means that we rely on our memory more than using the facts to make calculated decisions. We do not reason what the outcome of our decisions will be at the time of making them.

The fact that we make these unconscious decisions is exactly why we need to be aware of them. We can avoid these mental blind-spots by understanding when we make automatic associations.


Common types of unconscious bias


Halo and Horns Effect

A cognitive bias, where we associate positive and negative emotions to personality traits. When we like a person’s character, we have a positive attitude towards them, which is the Halo effect.

But, if we dislike a person’s behavior, we conclude any action or situation around them as negative. This is the Horns effect.

A common example that comes to mind is how men mentor and promote men that look and think like them.


Overconfidence Effect

This happens when we rely on our confidence rather than the accuracy of evaluation. We can classify overconfidence into 3 common categories.

        • Overestimation of our actual performance. When we rate our performance higher than our colleagues without relying on data.
        • Over-placement of our performance relative to others. Example – a team lead thinks the decision they make is the best, without considering the team’s opinion.
        • Unrealistic optimism. An example is when we work on new activities, we overestimate the amount of work we can perform in a time frame.

How to overcome cognitive bias at work


Make many forecasts

When we are making decisions like sprint planning or hiring, it is best to make 3 estimates for the task. Divide the estimates into low, medium, and high accuracy. This will help us rationalize and make estimates based on factors that matter.


Conduct premortems

This is a technique where we consider that our current project has failed in the future. We can go backward to identify the cause of this failure. This will help bring all areas of the project into consideration that we might miss out on.


Thinking about objectives

The best way to come up with alternatives is to go through objectives one by one. We usually consider them all together. When we have to meet too many factors at once, we are under pressure. To make it easy, our mind tends to make quick decisions that can be unfavorable.


Take others opinions

If I’m performing a task for the first time, it’s hard to make fair estimates. It’s wise to ask experienced people in that domain, for thoughtful consideration. An outbound view can give rise to new ideas or easier paths.


Thinking about options

Sometimes making tasks easy for us to answer can lead to losing alternatives. If we answer questions with a yes or no, it means we are deriving decisions through assumptions.

It’s best not to make rapid decisions, sit with each option, and rationalize what the best way to solve it is. Investing time will pay us back in the long run. For example – if I’m interviewing a candidate, it’s wrong to make a decision based on my intuition. It’s best to consider their skill-set, interest, experience, and see if they’re fit for the job.


Test the Vanishing Option method

When we have a fixed set of options, we don’t think of possible alternatives. What if all the current options are unavailable, what would we do? Can we come up with alternatives? Write them down and consider testing them.

I’m sure we have all made changes to our ‘regular business processes’ during the pandemic.


The human brain tries to reduce mental stress. We rely on our memory to make decisions more often than we know. Unconscious bias should be fixed because we do it without our knowledge. By incorporating some of the above-mentioned methods, we can fix the unconscious bias. If you tried these methods and noted the difference, you can reply to this post with the details.