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Beware and Be Aware: Leadership and Unconscious Bias

When you hear the word “bias,” does it trigger an instant “not me!” reaction? For most, it’s easier to recognize others’ biases than to admit our own. But when it comes to leadership and unconscious bias, denial could be an even bigger problem than the bias itself.

What is unconscious bias? 

Graphic Showing Leadership and Unconscious BiasIt’s the consequence of “fast thinking.’” Sometimes, “fast thinking” is essential for survival when we have react quickly to avoid harm. These fast-thinking decisions, impulses and responses are influenced by multiple factors including our life experiences, instincts for self-preservation, and perceptions. 

At times, we’re able to consciously process and weigh these factors before responding consciously, in a reasoned manner. More often, though, we make fast decisions and don’t take time to do the conscious work of checking ourselves. Out of necessity, efficiency, habit, or haste, we react in the moment. 

When it comes to interactions with people, “fast thinking” can mislead us. Our unconscious biases are one of the factors that influence our responses, and these unconscious biases usually aren’t reliable informants about people. 

Types of Unconscious Bias that Are Blind Spots for Many Leaders    


The “not me!” reaction is a red flag. All humans have some unconscious biases. This is not to be confused with being any kind of -ist, and it’s not an  indictment. It’s just a fact. Our unconscious biases actually serve an important purpose in keeping us safe and enabling us to respond quickly to danger. It’s the unbridled use of them and lack of awareness about them that leads us astray.  

In the workplace, unconscious bias comes in many different forms. Consider these seven types of unconscious bias that could impact the work you do as a leader. 

Affinity Bias

when you are biased towards someone who is, in some way, like you

Affinity bias is a tendency to warm up to people who remind us of ourselves.   

Where there is affinity between two people, they make more eye contact, allow each other room to speak, and listen to one another more intently. They give non-verbal cues that there is acceptance and interest. Those cues, of course, impact relationships and the formation of trust.  

Where there is no feeling of affinity, people tend to talk over each other or listen less intently to the points being made. There are fewer non-verbal cues of acceptance which result in discomfort and a vague sense  of mistrust. Without affinity, people are more reserved and less open with each other.  

These micro-inequities and micro-affirmations can make a workplace seem welcoming and full of opportunity for one person, while another feels ignored or overlooked.

This also plays out in recruiting and hiring. Affinity bias kicks in when we have an affinity with someone who attended the same college, grew up in the same town, or has a similar hobby. This also happens when someone reminds of another person we know and like or in some way reminds of our (younger) self.

When you interview a candidate and feel a sense of affinity with, our micro-affirmations put them at ease. For instance, if they tell us they’re a little nervous we may smile at them more, offer more words of encouragement etc. But if a person we share no affinity with says the same thing, we aren’t quite as warm towards them. After the interview, you’re likely to have a more positive impression of the first candidate, and that comes from your unconscious bias + your behavior towards the candidates in the interview. It may have nothing at all to do with the candidates themselves. 

Affinity bias is widespread in the workplace. People may choose to take breaks or go to lunch with the people they feel an immediate affinity with. These self-limiting choices create barriers to inclusion in teams and across the organization.

Ambiguity Bias

when you feel uncertain and are risk-averse, it magnifies your affinity bias

Ambiguity compounds our affinity bias and affects decision making anytime there’s uncertainty, a lack of information, or conflicting information that’s hard to wade through.  

People tend to select options that feel safer. The perception of safety comes, in part, from having clarity or more complete information. Many avoid making decisions or taking action when information is missing or unclear. 

This is why people continue to do what they’ve always done even when there’s a chance that making a change will improve the outcomes. People aren’t opposed to the improvement. They’re opposed to taking the chance so they stick with what’s known because it seems safer. 

This bias can make you shy away from decisions. It can also cause you to avoid or minimize interacting with people who have diverse points of view, those with experience that is unlike your own, and those who bring new cultural practices or dissimilar backgrounds into the mix. 

Remember: This is not a conscious process! There is no blame or shame or judgment being suggested in this overview of unconscious biases. Every single on of us is subject to these blind spots. 

Attribution Bias

when we give ourselves more credit or grace than we give others

Attribution Bias shows up any time we’re evaluating others and using a standard for them that’s different from the standard we use for ourselves.

Imagine you’re looking at a situation and drawing some conclusions about what led to the results. Use the illustration to visualize the responses described.

 On the horizontal axis, you’ve got positive outcomes on the left and negative outcomes on the right. The vertical axis shows whether it’s a situation YOU are responsible for or someone else is responsible for. Self is shown in the top two boxes and others are shown in the bottom two boxes. 

When you put these two together, you’ve got 4 situations… And here’s where that double standard of evaluation and conclusions shows up. graphic illustrating Leadership and Unconscious Bias

Let’s start in box #1 (upper left). There’s been a positive outcome, and you were responsible for it. In this situation, you attribute the success to your personality and your innate characteristics. You are selected for a promotion and you immediately respond by feeling that you were selected because of who you are.

By contrast, when there is a positive outcome and it’s for someone else as shown in box #2, we immediately attribute that success to good luck or politics and NOT, initially or automatically, to their personality and innate characteristics. If someone else is selected for a promotion, we attribute their success to something outside of them, to circumstances instead of their personality or characteristics. 

The same is true when we look at negative outcomes. If it’s something you have a role in or a responsibility for, when there’s a negative outcome you attribute that to circumstances of bad luck. You externalize it instead of attaching it to your personality and innate characteristics. That’s shown in box #3, the upper right. 

But when it’s a negative outcome and someone else is responsible, in box #3, we attribute it to their personality or innate characteristics. We don’t give them the same grace we give ourselves. 

This is called a Fundamental Attribution Error or Attribution Bias. 

In the workplace,  we have to be careful to avoid putting groups of people in these “us” and “them” boxes. Because of our affinity bias, we might tend to put people who are like us in boxes #1 and #4 and people who we have less affinity with in boxes #2 and #3. When we do that, we can end up showing favoritism. We might be giving opportunities to some and not others. We might trust more easily and believe more often in people who we’re supporting --- and the only reason we feel more supportive of them is because of these fundamental attribution errors. 

If we’re not fairly and uniformly considering the circumstances and luck and politics of a situation, we end up penalizing certain people or even groups of people….. And, at the core of that, it’s only because they are different from us in some way – in their ideology, background, style, preferences, departmental role, or other make up. 

Comparison Bias

when you compare two people to each other instead of to objective criteria

Here’s another interesting bias that you may not be aware of. 

Comparison Bias means that you’re comparing two people (or two choices) to each other instead of comparing them to an objective standard.

The problem is that using an actual person for the basis of comparison is inherently limiting. Let’s say you were dating someone and, over time, you realize that she sees everything in an extremely negative light. She isn’t kind or supportive and even seems to enjoy putting you down. She complains a lot. The longer you know her the less you want to be around her. So you break up.

Now you’re dating someone else. If you compare the new girlfriend to the old one, the new girlfriend gets favorable marks. All she has to do is be a little nicer or more positive in her outlook. 

If you stop there, you’re suffering from Comparison Bias. There’s a whole world full of people, so comparing just these two is not a valid assessment of either. The better approach is to pre-determine your ideal match and look for a girlfriend who suits you in all the ways that matter to you. 

This bias plays out regularly in recruitment. The more you look at resumes, the more susceptible you may be to this bias. For example, if you wade through stacks of resumes or conduct lots of interviews in a row, the natural tendency is to compare each resume or interview to the one that came before it. 

We judge whether or not the person who’s front of us did as well as the person that came before them. But the only thing we should be comparing are the skills and attributes each individual has to the skills and attributes required for the job.

In the workplace, day to day, we might be doing this subconsciously if we compare one manager to another… one team member to another… or even one work group to another. We need to elevate our thinking or we will always be stuck in these very narrow, limiting comparisons. 

Confirmation Bias

when you want something to be true, you’re more likely to believe it

Confirmation bias occurs when we select sources and favor information that confirms what we already believe. It happens when we get stuck in an echo chamber and dismiss contradicting views and stop challenging our own thinking. It also influences how we react to and interpret information. Confirmation bias affects us in 3 ways:

  • How we seek information

Confirmation bias affects how you look at the world around you. You may choose a news outlet that has political leanings like your own. You may go to certain websites or use certain search terms that favor the conclusions you are already forming. 

 How we interpret the information in front of us

Confirmation bias also affects how you process what is otherwise neutral information. When you are falling in love, all you see in your partner is a beautiful, perfect Adonis. You don’t notice a single flaw. When that relationship sours, all of a sudden, all you see are flaws — his coffee breath, his penchant for droning endlessly about a topic you don’t care about, the hairs he leaves in the sink. You are dating the exact same person, but you perceive the things he/she does differently based on how you feel.

  • How we remember things

Even your memories are affected by confirmation bias. You interpret and possibly even change memories and facts in your head based on your beliefs. 

In a classic experiment, Princeton and Dartmouth students were shown a game between the two schools. At the end, Princeton students remembered more fouls committed by Dartmouth, and Dartmouth students remembered more fouls committed by Princeton. Both groups of students fundamentally believed their school was better. So they tended to remember and recall more instances that showed their school in a good light and the opposing school in a bad light.

With a Confirmation Bias, we subconsciously think of people the way we want to and not the way they actually are. When filling a job, we might look harder for negative information about a candidate we are less comfortable with due to our affinity bias. We might overlook similar negative signs in a candidate we feel an affinity with. 

Conformity Bias

when you go along with the group even when you don’t understand or agree

Here’s why our confirmation and affinity biases often go unchallenged. 

We also have a Conformity Bias that causes us, subconsciously, to want to go along with the crowd. 

Conformity Bias refers to our tendency to take cues for proper behavior from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment.

Based on a famous study that’s been around for decades, conformity bias comes from peer pressure. 

 In the study, a group of people is asked to look at the straight line on the left and say which line in Exhibit 2 matches the line in Exhibit 1. One individual is told to say what they think. The rest of the group is told to give the wrong answer. graphic illustrating negativity bias

We can see that line A of Exhibit 2 matches the line in Exhibit 1. But when the individual who doesn’t know this is an experiment gives the correct answer – only to be informed that the rest of the group has said Line B – the individual decides to scrap their own opinion in favor of the group’s opinion. This phenomenon occurs in 75% of cases, across all age groups and demographics. 

Just think how this could play out in an interview panel talking about a job candidate. If an individual feels the majority of the group are leaning towards or away from a certain candidate, they will tend to go along with what the group thinks rather than voice their own opinions.

Think, too, about how this could impact team workflow and decisions. If someone sees things differently and has something unique to offer, they might not feel comfortable doing so if the group has already formed an opinion and does not remain open to others’ input.  

Negativity Bias

when your unpleasant memories more powerfully influence you than positive ones

According to the negativity bias, people are more likely to recall their unpleasant memories than the pleasant ones, and act in ways that will help them avoid these events. 

A study by John Cacioppo from Ohio State University shows that our brains react more strongly to negative stimuli. This is shown by higher electrical activity in the cerebral cortex when subjects are presented with negative images.

Another study by Professor Teresa Amabile from the Harvard Business School asked more than 200 professionals from different industries and companies to fill out daily diaries describing one thing that stood out that day. Amabile found, after studying more than 12,000 entries, that the negative effect of happiness (resulting a setback) was more than twice as strong as the positive effect of making a step forward on meaningful work. The effect of setbacks on increasing frustration was also over three times stronger than the effect of progress on decreasing frustration.

Chances are that you’ve had some negative experiences when dealing with ambiguity, when forced to consider information that did not support your point of view, and when you felt a need to conform to others’ beliefs that were different from your own. 

If you are stretching yourself past these three subconscious biases, this negativity bias could rear up and block you with negative memories so you won’t want to proceed with ambiguity, non-conformity, or in considering information differently. 

This bias, like all of them, won’t stand up to logic and objectivity. But we have to be aware of it to counter it. 

Leadership and Unconscious Bias Has a Ripple Tsunami Effect 

To be clear, unconscious bias is not to be automatically equated with bad intent. Even when there’s good intent (or no intent since this is a blind spot!), the impact of unconscious bias can be negative. 

Since everyone is prone to these seven types of unconscious bias (and many more that we haven’t mentioned here!), it would be easy to say “well, that’s just the way things are.” Ignoring it, though, won’t help you any more than denying it. 

Unconscious bias impacts:

  • How leaders are perceived. Those with unaddressed and obvious biases can be thought of as uncaring, out of touch, or worse. Many see unchecked bias as a sign of poor character.   
  • Employee engagement levels. Any one of these unconscious biases can cause some employees on a team to feel overlooked, undervalued, or disenfranchised. Naturally, those feelings would diminish the emotional connection that an employee has to the workplace and team. These individuals can’t help but be less motivated, less committed for the long-term, and less concerned about the work they do.  
  • Company performance. Gaps in employee engagement leads to higher levels of turnover, lower levels of productivity, reduced customer satisfactions, and subpar results in both topline revenue and bottom line margins. 
  • Innovation and opportunities. If employee churn is high, there won’t be time for new ideas to develop and flourish. If diversity of thought is inadvertently dismissed or unwelcome, new ideas won’t be offered (even if they do develop). And if employees are not engaged, they won’t be interested in helping the company identify and seize new opportunities. 
  • Equity, diversity and inclusion. Obviously, there’s a grave impact on people, too, especially the ones who are on the negative side of any unconscious bias. Company commitments to be more inclusive need to include an look at leadership and unconscious bias. Again, this is not to indict anyone because unconscious biases are not formed from ill intent or a desire to exclude others. Nonetheless, the impact is there even though the intent is not.  


 Awareness of your own unconscious biases and how they manifest is a sign of true leadership. You can’t control or change what you don’t understand. 

Recognizing and Addressing Unconscious Bias in Yourself

To recognize your own unconscious biases and how they influence your people interactions, decisions, and responses:

  1. Any time you find yourself on mental autopilot, pause and think it through. Being reflective instead of reflexive will help you understand what’s influencing you.  
  2. Stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. Make deliberate efforts to spend time with people you don’t have an affinity with. As you spend time with people who are not like you, observe your own reactions, judgments, attributions, and emotions. In the future, these will be clues for you that an unconscious bias and “fast thinking” are trying to take over .  
  3. Choose different sources of information that you normally do. Notice how you dismiss, rail against, deny, and have emotional reactions to the information that doesn’t fit with your own beliefs. But don’t stop there. To fully recognize and understand your unconscious bias, you’ll have to get to a place where you can acknowledge that there’s some information in this new source that’s worth considering. 

To address unconscious bias, try these strategies.

  1. Challenge the conclusions you draw quickly. Ask yourself questions like
    • Why do I feel this way?
    • What experiences or emotions cause me to feel this way?
    • If I didn’t feel this way, would I take the same action? 
  2. In the next CONNECT2Lead Blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into how asking better questions will make you a better leader. 

  3. Value objectivity and strive to be more objective in your presentation of information. The discipline of seeking both sides (all sides) of an issue and dispassionately considering them is inherently more likely to invite in more ideas and perspectives. 

  4. Call out unconscious bias in yourself and others. Make it safe to talk about it. Remove the blame and shame to accelerate awareness and identify when unconscious bias gets in the way of quality dialogue, decisions, and people interactions. 

Recognizing and Addressing Unconscious Bias in Sources You Rely On

There’s one more important step to take if you’re going to succeed in unbundling your leadership and unconscious bias. It’s not just you. Everyone else has these biases, too, including the sources you rely on and turn to for information. 

If you’re going to eradicate the influence unconscious bias on you, you’ll have to be more discerning about your sources and know when they have lost some of their objectivity, too. 

To recognize unconscious bias in sources:

  1. Set a high standard for source credibility and objectivity. Don’t waste your time with sources that have an agenda and are more focused on advocating than informing.  
  2. Notice when opinions are presented as facts. Our unconscious biases may cause us to believe something so strongly that we allow these lines to become blurred. 
  3. Be sure your sources are looking at multiple sources and seeking diverse points of view. 

To address unconscious bias in others:

  1. Recognize, encourage, and appreciate when people take risks to explore new ideas and stretch outside their comfort zone. 
  2. Model what you expect when it comes to acknowledging and overcoming the influence of unconscious biases. 
  3. Inform people in a non-judgmental way when you see them succumbing to the influence of their own unconscious biases. 

As uncomfortable as it might be to work through unconscious bias, this is a show of strength and a way to broaden your own perspective. The positives impacts on others can’t be overstated, but leaders benefit, too, in numerous ways when they tackle blind spots like these.

For more on bias and critical thinking skills, check out our YouTube series No More Lazy Thinking:

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