Can We Overcome Bias Within Ourselves?

As a business leader, I often think about the potential bias I am placing on decisions, my colleagues and my work. Psychologists describe bias as falling into two broad categories: conscious and unconscious, and within each category there are numerous different types of bias.  

Here I want to share with you two unconscious biases that we have all used at some point. 

Affinity Bias

In affinity bias, we lean towards people who are similar to us in some way, whether that is in appearance, background, interests or beliefs. For example, affinity bias might make us favour someone who went to the same university as us. I’m sure we’ve all experienced meeting someone new and feeling an instant rapport and connection to them. We might describe the warmth we experience as ‘chemistry’, but it is probably affinity bias and we have unconsciously recognised aspects of ourselves in the other person. 

Confirmation Bias 

We all like to be right, and confirmation bias supports that need by filtering out evidence that contradicts what we believe and by seeking out evidence that supports our views. Confirmation bias means we only see part of the picture, so if we believe someone is the right person for a particular job, we’ll only see the things they do well in that job and won’t see their weaknesses. 

Bias occurs because although our brains can take in millions of bits of information in an instant, we can only process a tiny fraction of them. Our brains rely on unconscious shortcuts – bias – to filter information and make decisions. Knowing about bias is only the start of the story, though: the challenge is recognising and overcoming it in ourselves. I’ve been very fortunate to live on three continents and work with people from different cultures and these experiences have given me tools I use to try to overcome bias within myself, and which I wish to share with you here. 

Maintaining Neutrality 

I’m sure many of us have had the experience of joining a new organisation and finding that our colleagues are keen to share their opinions about others with us. As leaders, we’re often under pressure to act quickly, and it would be easy to accept other’s assessments about where talent lies in the organisation and who has the skillsets needed for the growth of the business. However, paying attention to those opinions might lead to confirmation bias if we unconsciously look for evidence that supports what we’ve been told. When I join a new organisation, I try to take a step back, filter out other people’s feedback, and take my time to get to know people myself before making up my mind. By remaining neutral and investing the time in getting to know people properly, I can decide for myself who has the right attitude and skillsets the business needs to grow. 

Adopting a Growth Mindset 

To me, a growth mindset is a curiosity mindset: a desire to experience new things and places. Travel is a wonderful way to do this and I’ve been fortunate to travel widely. Whenever I travel, I like to use all my senses to explore a new place, including eating at local cafés and spending time talking to local people, and I enjoy learning more about the country by reading books that explain its history and how it has evolved. 

But what about people who don’t have the opportunity to travel? Fortunately for us, in our digitally connected world, we can all talk to people based in different parts of the world. Often, the Zoom call that is now such a part of our daily lives can seem transactional – we hop on the call, get the information we need, and sign off – but if we have a genuine interest in getting to know other people, and make the time to meet them in person when we can, we can make authentic connections with others. 

Recognising that Everyone is Unique 

I was recently reading Roxie Nafouis’s Manifest, in which she says, ‘We are unstoppably magnetic when we are unapologetically ourselves’. This statement resonated with me and reminded me how important it is to remember that we’re all unique. Each of us is an amalgamation of our experiences, both good and bad, and no two people are exactly alike. By recognising that we’re all unique, we’re able to challenge our biases because we can accept that ostensible similarities don’t make us the same as someone else and we should get to know them deeply as individuals. 

Affinity and confirmation biases are unconscious and therefore difficult to spot in ourselves. However, we can challenge them by remaining neutral while we take the time to get to know people before making up our minds about them, by being actively curious about other people and places, seeking to make authentic connections with people, and by recognising that we are each unique, with unique talents to offer.