Just how biased are you?

Unconscious bias affects our thinking, and can have serious consequences for management decisions…

Ever found yourself drawn to someone even when you know little about them, or taken an instant dislike to someone simply because they have the same name as someone you didn’t get on with?

Do you ever get angry at something you heard on the news or read in a newspaper because you are sure that it just can’t be true and you don’t want to believe it?

If so, you may have revealed an unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias often comes to the fore in a business environment when we have to make decisions about the people around us, and none more so than when we are responsible for hiring and firing.

It might be that a particular candidate or employee reminds us of someone we once knew. Perhaps some element of their personality or appearance triggers an embedded cultural characteristic in us – based on a religious doctrine or some general feeling from our past, for instance.

Whether positive or negative, we can easily project our past biases onto that person, and make foundless assumptions about them. And while it might be easy to ask someone else to check the veracity of our judgement, this assumes that they don’t hold the same unconscious bias; indeed, if we have recruited or promoted that person ourselves, it’s highly possible that we might have done so because they reflect our own image, and might therefore share our bias.

Our unconscious biases mean that not all information is treated equally, and without an awareness of them, and a plan to address them, our business decisions run the risk of being significantly impaired.

Neuroscience expert Professor Patricia Riddell has recently designed and run unconscious bias training for the Executive Board at the University of Reading, having researched this phenomenon from a number of perspectives, including:

  • how organisational culture is affected by the bias in its leaders
  • how employees’ biases about leadership affect how they perceive leadership decisions
  • the tricks and techniques we can use to access our biases and overcome them

Coaching and unconscious bias

Following on from this training, Patricia is working with groups of professional coaches at the Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change to explore the nature of unconscious bias from both inside and out.

And at the forthcoming Henley Coaching Forum, Patricia will be addressing these issues and more, and revealing the latest thinking on:

  • what makes us behave in these ways
  • what is happening in our brains to drive these behaviours
  • how can we do more to be in control of our biases

How neuroscience is helping business leaders to make better decisions

Understanding the complexities of human behaviour provides an opportunity to use our brains better and neuroscience can help us do this more effectively.

One of the neuroscience principles that has been shown to be critical for success, especially in the area of strategic thinking is neuroplasticity, which demonstrates that we really can teach old dogs new tricks… essential when considering strategies and implementation for learning and development.

Patricia maintains that only by being more aware of the issue and understanding our own propensity to exhibit unconscious bias can we begin to spot the triggers, dismantle the mechanisms that lead to our bias and finally start to make truly objective decisions based on real, hard evidence.

The Henley Coaching Forum takes place on 29th January 2014 at Henley Business School.


Professor Patricia Riddell

Patricia Riddell is Professor of Applied Neuroscience and Head of Department of Psychology at the University of Reading. She gained a BSc from the University of Glasgow, an MSc from Imperial College London and was then awarded a doctorate from the University of Oxford.

One of her main research interests is the ways in which neuroscience can be applied in the business world, supporting and extending our understanding of human behaviour. Patricia combines the latest neuroscience with practical means to immediately impact real-world challenges facing individuals, teams and organisations.

A few places are still available at the next Coaching Forum, where Professor Riddell will be leading a session devoted to the subject of Unconscious Bias, and how it can be identified and controlled, particularly in the context of coaching and business leadership. For details, click here.

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