Why unconscious bias is bad for your business

Posted 24 February 2022 by
Melissa Summer, The Myers-Briggs Company

3 min. read

The brain receives 11 million pieces of information a second but can only process 40 to 50. The magnitude of that fact reminds us that our unconscious intake is vast. It’s no surprise that within that amount of information to process, we have biases.

Everyone has unconscious bias. No-one is immune.

But what’s the impact on people, relationships, and business?

The short answer is i) lack of diversity and inclusion, and ii) lower-quality decision-making. Read on to learn more about point ii. 

A definition of unconscious bias

In her LinkedIn Learning course, author and DEI Strategist Stacey A. Gordon describes unconscious bias as, “The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our views, our actions, and our decision-making ability.”

Decision-making is an area that fits naturally with people development. But, in the DEI space, we might want to shift our concept of decision-making a little. 

Traditionally, decision-making has been seen as a ‘business’ thing involving strategy, innovation, investment, performance, and so on. Things that need to be done. 

But really, decision-making goes much wider than that. 

We make decisions all the time every day—especially about people. What we say, do, accept, reject, challenge, criticize, praise, dismiss, include, exclude, and more are the results of decisions we make. 

For many of those decisions, we’re not fully aware of our rationale or reason. 

In these cases, our unconscious—which receives all those billions of bits of data we don’t know about—is prominent. When we act (or decide) quickly and without reflecting, we’re at the mercy of the attitudes and stereotypes Stacey Gordon refers to in her definition.  

The route to improved decision-making

There is plenty of research saying diverse organizations make better quality decisions and perform better. Those organizations, or decision-making groups within them, draw on a broader range of perspectives, skill sets, and experiences. It leads to a more richly-informed decision than one made by a group of people who act and think the same way. 

So, how can we start the journey to better decision-making?

One step is with self-awareness. 

Self-awareness helps people understand not only their own cognitive processes and the way they make decisions, but the way that other people make decisions too (we touched on this in Inclusion: Who’s buying? when we talked about leaders’ decision-making styles).

The MBTI® framework helps to improve decision-making processes by building awareness of the different cognitive processes. It shows how to move through the full range in a more systematic way.

The key is that we step outside of ourselves. 

Once we become alert to the fact that different perspectives exist outside our own default style, we can work harder to consciously include them. Self-awareness gives us the capacity to be more rigorous about decision-making—not just the big decisions but the small ones too. 

And by small, we mean the ones that don’t have a huge ‘decision’ sign hanging over them. We mean the many unconscious decisions we make every day. The ones where biases run unchecked and easily compound themselves into systemic errors. 

Slow down to be inclusive

The unconscious helps us decide things quickly. One way to check that impulse, even if you don’t yet know decision-making theory, is to be more deliberate. 

Take the time to think consciously about the alternative perspectives you lack and need. Pause so you can think critically about your actions and feelings, especially toward other people. Make it a habit to ask why, especially about your own thoughts and assumptions.

In summary

  1. Accept that we are biased and so is everyone else. Recognition is the first step toward positive action.
  2. Evaluate the way you make decisions. The MBTI decision-making model offers structure to get started.
  3. Act inclusively so that more diverse types become part of the improved decision-making process.

A rounded decision-making process built on self-awareness won’t put an end to unconscious bias. But a wider application of its underlying principles is a useful place to start.

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