Unconscious bias

| By TMA World

We like to think we are making objective, rational decisions about other people.  Multiple studies have shown us, however,  that this is not the case; we are influenced by thoughts and feelings we are not even aware of. 

To simplify and manage the vast amount of information in our social worlds, we categorise people based on many visible and invisible criteria, e.g. accent, age, social background, weight, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality.  We not only categorise people to these groups, but we attribute good and bad characteristics to them;  these biases often based on what something somebody has told us (maybe in our childhood) play a significant part in how we engage with, and make decisions about, people we don’t even know.

The fact that we have unconscious biases has profound implications. When we make decisions about who gets a job, a promotion, or high profile assignment, we are very likely adding subliminal thoughts and feelings that have no basis in fact.

Our challenge is to develop a greater awareness of our unconscious biases, and learn how to control them. 

How to Manage Unconscious Bias: 

Implicit Association Test

Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington created Project Implicit to develop hidden bias tests. Click here to take the test


Facebook has produced a series of videos designed to help their employees reduce the negative effects of unconscious biases in the workplace. 

Click here to watch the video series.

  • Video 1. Introduction from Lori Goler, VP of People, Facebook

Introduces four common types of bias:

    • Performance Bias
    • Performance Attribution Bias
    • Competence/Likeability Trade-off Bias
    • Maternal Bias
  • Video 2. Introductions and First Impressions

Our first impressions are influenced by our own experiences and worldview.  These impressions can be positive, negative, or neutral based on our cultural understandings of how the world works, or should work.

  • Video 3: Stereotypes and Performance Bias

Stereotypes (relatively fixed perceptions of people in groups not our own) influence how we relate to others.  They impact our decisions about other people; decisions that could prevent them fully contributing at work.  Performance bias happens when people in dominant groups (e.g. whites, men) are judged by their expected potential, while those in less dominant groups are judged by their proven accomplishments.

  • Video 4. Performance Attribution Bias

Unconscious biases lead some people to be seen as “naturally talented,” while others are seen as having “gotten lucky.”  Both types can be detrimental.  People seen as naturally gifted are less likely to receive credit for their ideas.  Those perceived as having gotten lucky are more likely to be interrupted in meetings and have less influence.

  • Video 5. Competence/Likeability Trade-off Bias

What the research shows is that success and likeability are correlated – positively correlated for men and negatively for women.  Men are expected to be assertive and action-oriented, while women are expected to be nurturing and care-taking.  With a need to produce results and be liked increases the difficulty for women in being hired and promoted, negotiating for themselves, and exhibiting leadership.

  • Video 6. Maternal Bias

Mothers in the workplace experience an unconscious bias that fathers and women without children do not.  A bias against mothers can be triggered by potential motherhood (engagement, marriage, talking about children).  Mothers are assumed to be more focused on their children than their job.  This has a negative impact on recruitment, promotion, and pay.

  • Video 7. Diversity Case for Diversity & Inclusion and What You Can Do About It

Surfacing and counteracting unconscious bias is not just the right thing to do, but is essential to the organization’s success.  When biases aren’t acknowledged they can’t be managed.


Google was shocked when it analyzed its own workforce.  Seventy percent of employees were male, 61% were white, and only 21% of people in leadership roles were women.  They conducted a comprehensive study of why the numbers were so skewed. They produced a video of a training session delivered by Dr. Brian Welle, Director of People Analytics at Google.  Besides evidence for unconscious bias, he covers four strategies for dealing with its negative impact: 

  • Gather facts
  • Create a structure for making decisions
  • Be mindful of subtle cues
  • Foster awareness.  Hold yourself – and your colleagues – accountable 


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