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Recognizing unconscious bias

Understanding how unconscious biases can influence our language and decision-making can help transform human potential and align individual performance with organizational results.

August 28, 2018

Viewpoints’ invites guest authors from outside of Wells Fargo to share an important perspective related to their work. Today, we welcome Jennifer Brown, founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, a strategic leadership and diversity consulting firm.


Like it or not, unconscious biases in the workplace continue to influence our language and decision-making, impacting the ability of talented people in historically underrepresented or marginalized groups in the workforce to thrive. If this dynamic isn’t addressed proactively, key talent will not stay for long — impacting morale, reputation, and the bottom line.

A photo of Jennifer Brown in a blue blazer, smiling, against a solid grey background.
Jennifer Brown is the founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting.

Now, I say “like it or not” because none of us wants to admit that we are biased, and we are often unaware of how and when our biases show up in the ways we lead and collaborate with others at work.

As the founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting, I’ve assembled a team to help organizations be more inclusive, unlearn harmful behaviors, and build new leadership muscles to create workplaces where all talent feels “welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.”

I define unconscious bias as our implicit and often negative associations about identities different than our own — anything from race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or some other qualifier. These biases result from a combination of our primal “wiring” to fear or distrust what’s different or unfamiliar with our early exposure to direct and indirect messages about others. If you’d like a sobering experience, take Harvard’s free online Implicit Association Test and check your biases.

Based on biases, especially the unexplored or unknown variety, we move up the Ladder of Inference from facts to assumptions to — in extreme cases — being discriminatory.

For example, it might be assumed that a female leader wouldn't want a stretch or global assignment because of family priorities, therefore depriving her of a critical experience that might lead to an executive leadership position. She may not even be consulted about the opportunity.

Personal bias can also be seen in a manager’s evaluation of their direct reports if that evaluation is based on subjective judgment rather than objective, quantifiable measurements. As another example, an Asian American woman that is a high performer at her company but is slightly more reserved in meetings might get passed up for a promotion year after year based on her “lack of assertiveness.”

Strategies for addressing unconscious bias

The good news is that there are some simple strategies for mitigating unconscious bias at work:

Practice self-awareness: Bias helps us process mass amounts of information and utilize mental shortcuts. Scientists estimate that the human sensory system sends millions of bits of information every second to the brain, but the conscious mind can only process about 50 bits per second. Consider the pieces of information we actually need to make better decisions. By slowing down, we have a greater chance to overcome our unconscious biases that tend to favor one group over another.

Notice how we — perhaps unwittingly — favor our own group versus others. Or how we make the comfortable choice that often perpetuates sameness, and doesn’t challenge the “way we’ve always done it here” mentality in meaningful ways that open the door to opportunity for those with nontraditional backgrounds. 

Continue learning and be curious: Yes, we can make proactive choices to mitigate our biases. Both classroom and virtual learning opportunities can be helpful in raising our awareness and building new muscle, but also take advantage of learning from others. Lean into the discomfort by saying what you do not know and also what you would like to learn more about. Finally, never assume that you already know the answer — going back to our earlier examples, some women are able to balance travel and family responsibilities and are ambitious for that top job.

My firm works with Wells Fargo to manage its Diverse Leaders Program, a set of uniquely designed three-day sessions for team members who identify as Asian & Pacific Islander, Black/African American, Latino, or Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT). The program is unique, I believe, in the business world because it explicitly provides a safe space where leaders can compare experiences of how their identity informs their leadership journey and strategize together about bringing more of their full selves to work.

Focus on changing the policies: Understand where in your organization bias may tend to creep into the process. Align performance management reviews around qualitative and objective feedback, and seek opportunities to provide continuous feedback rather than relying on it once a year. Utilize artificial intelligence-enabled software to look for bias in job descriptions, and make it mandatory to interview a diverse slate of candidates for each open role. 

While there is still much to do in this work, we are seeing progress. With programs like Wells Fargo’s Diverse Leaders Program setting an example — as well as the personal courage to change the way we lead to unleash the potential of others — we are on our way toward building workplaces we all desire and in which we each feel truly welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.

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