Unconscious Bias: what do you see?

Quite simply bias is:

Prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

It used to be regarded as aberrant, conscious and intentional — however it is now considered normative, unconscious and largely unintentional. However, it can potentially exert a powerful influence on how we interact with other people, including in our coaching practice.

Unconscious bias is not limited to the protected characteristics in the equality legislation but extends to physical attributes, weight, social groups etc.

No matter how open-minded we might like to think we are, we are all affected by unconscious bias. These biases develop over the course of our lives as a result of the influences of our family and friends, our personal experiences, our cultural background and external influences such as the media.

Our senses gather some 11 million bits of information every second, but the human brain is only aware of about 50 of them. Therefore our minds are constantly processing and sifting vast amounts of information looking for patterns, and for the most part without our conscious awareness.

Research suggests that we usually instinctively categorise people and things using easily observed criteria such as age, weight, skin colour and gender. But we also classify people according to educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status and job title — automatically assigning traits to anyone we subconsciously put into these groups.

If left unchecked, this can easily lead us into (at best) stereotypes and (at worst) prejudicial or discriminatory behaviours.

Although we all like to think we are open-minded and objective, research consistently shows that across all social groups that this is not the case. We are heavily influenced in ways that are completely hidden from our conscious mind in how we view and evaluate both others and ourselves.

It is not for us to beat ourselves up over this, but to understand how by becoming aware of our own unconscious biases we can ensure they do not adversely impact on our coaching relationships.

How biases affect us

As coaches we are constantly meeting and starting new relationships with coachees.

We know how important first impressions are to building trust and rapport; and how crucial they are to the success of the coaching relationship.

However, research shows that those first moments of meeting a new person are particularly prone to influence from our unconscious biases.

In reality, our biases affect us in a number of different ways: how we see people and perceive reality; how we react towards certain people; which aspects of a person we pay most attention to and how much we actively listen to what certain people say.

Have you ever noticed your immediate reaction when meeting the coachee for the first time? Was it based on what they looked like, how they were dressed, or how they spoke (as opposed to what they said)?

Was the reaction positive or negative? Bias can have negative or positive consequences. You may feel more in favour of/against a coachee for the wrong reasons.  

Types of Unconscious Bias

There are 9 different types of unconscious bias including:

  • Beauty bias – we tend to think that the most handsome individual will be the most successful. This can also play out in terms of other physical attributes a person may have.
  • Affinity bias – occurs when we see someone we feel we have an affinity with e.g. we attended the same college, grew up in the same town, support the same football club or they remind us of someone we know and like.
  • Halo effect – when we see one great thing about a person and we let the halo glow of that significant thing affect our opinions of everything else about that person.
  • Horns effect – the direct opposite of the Halo effect. This is when we see one bad thing about a person and we let it cloud our opinions of their other attributes.
  • Similarity bias – naturally we want to surround ourselves with people we feel are similar to us and therefore we tend to want to work more with people who are like us.
  • Confirmation bias – when we make a judgment about another person, we subconsciously look for evidence to back up our own opinions of that person, because we want to believe that we are right and have made the right assessment of that person.

By way of example: we all have our favourite clients and sometimes it’s because we can relate and identify with who they are.

This ‘similarity’ bias, however, can get in the way of our objectivity (if it is possible for us ever to be fully objective) and cause us to coach from a place of “I know and understand you and how to best handle your situation” versus “I am curious about who you are today in our coaching session.”

How to counter Unconscious Bias

The first step is simple: make the unconscious conscious.

Once we accept that we all naturally use subconscious mental shortcuts, we can then take time to consider them and reflect on whether such implicit thought processes are inappropriately affecting the objectivity of our coaching.

In order to raise our effectiveness as coaches, we need to be more self-aware about what we might be bringing into the coaching session and how this impacts on our behaviour.

In addition, we might be able to see what the coachee is bringing into the coaching session and challenge them accordingly.

It has been shown that we are far more able to see the operation of bias in others than in ourselves – we can therefore help them in detecting and calling out bias which may be impacting on what they have brought to the session.

Before your next coaching session, you might want to think about some of the following questions?

  • What do I think I ‘know’ about the coachee or his/her situation? How can I be sure of that?
  • How would I coach this coachee today if I didn’t know anything about them?
  • What bias, beliefs or attitude might be in the way of me doing my best coaching with this coachee?

You might also want to undertake some reflective practice in identifying your personal biases and how they influence your thinking and the way you respond to people or situations – developing your awareness about how your biases could influence your coaching will enhance your effectiveness as a coach.

Unconscious Bias webinar

You may also find the below resource on Unconscious Bias useful — a recent webinar from Catalyst 14 about the topic.

YouTube video

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