Disrupting a Short-Cut: Understanding (Unintended) Bias


By: Kristin Backstrom

Bias. Stereotyping.

Ugly words, indeed.

However, the positive aspects of bias play a valid role in our day-to-day lives that is, at best, under appreciated.

Let’s take a moment to explore how the process of bias might have developed — along with a strategy to successfully disrupt negative bias and stereotyping at work.

Through millions of years of adaptive evolution, our brains have evolved to make things a little easier for us to process our world. First of all, there is a ton of information that comes straight at us every single day. (Our filters allow only 2-3% of it in. Yes, that’s right. Most of the stimuli that comes our way, we don’t ever address.)  With just the small bit that does come through, we tend to process it in one of two ways.

One —  through quick, effortless thinking — and two, through deep, thoughtful, slow work that takes much more time.

In most situations (about 95% of the time) we engage in quick thinking methods to lighten our brain’s processing load. One of these methods is the dynamic of generalization. An example of generalization would be how we learn to open doors by pushing on them — so that’s how you approach doors day in and day out. (Then, one day, you’ll be flummoxed by a door that you have to pull to open it.) Because our brains use this “short cut” to keep it’s processing time available for other things.

Other developed values, beliefs, and attributes contribute to the situation. This is of course, is where bias is born. (Read about 20 common forms of bias, including stereotyping, here.) It can simply become too much of a good thing,

While it would make sense to reduce all cognitive short cuts to eliminate bias — think of the difficulties we would have getting anything done — if we never relied on any of our past experiences to make sense of our world.

The challenge is this: It’s difficult to change a generalized belief once it becomes installed in our brain. While change can occur, this requires the deliberate, hard work  that our brains only engage in approximately 5% of the time.

So — one effective method is to kick-start more deliberate thinking, by providing people feedback about things they may say or do, that can open a door to modify generalizations.

Bias can creep in to our workplaces is during the hiring process, for example. Have you seen a CEO on board members who seem to be a reflection of them? Because of how we sort our world, we tend to hire people we like us, because they make us feel comfortable. We trust in them the idea that ‘our intuition’ tells us they are a good fit.

But this is where our “short cuts”, “short out” and negatively affect our decision-making. Without additional information (assessments, interviews, etc.) mistakes are often made. It makes sense to guard the hiring process by slowing down seeking information to make sure that predictive analytics, rather than gut instincts – are driving the hiring.

Again, kicking in that slow, deliberate thinking helps move bias out of the way.

If you personally experience bias or stereotyping at work, this can be extremely frustrating. It’s important to remember to keep emotions in check and offer specific feedback to inform a more deliberate process. Describe the situation where the bias occurred, identify the specific behavior, and explain the impact this has on you and others. For example: “Joe, last week at the staff meeting you told everyone I was really helpful on the project I was tasked with.  While I do appreciate the compliment, when you tell others that I (as a woman) am helpful, you’re casting me in a supportive role rather than a leader role.  This supports the unconscious stereotype that women aren’t leaders.  So, while it was a nice thing to say, I’d appreciate it if you would describe my contributions in terms of the work to be done. Perhaps instead you could say “Karen successfully managed the project time line to complete every objective.”

That substitute language might seem long-winded. However, it’s purpose was to be specific about what happened and also provide an alternative for the future. This signals the need for the slower, more deliberate thinking.

And remember… this is dialogue, not debate.  There doesn’t have to be a clear winner.

The goal is to simply create new levels of awareness — and that’s more than likely to happen over time than right on the spot.

However, that is how we change minds.

Have ever struggled with bias or stereotyping?

Read more about it:

Dr. Kristin Backstrom is a business psychologist who works at the intersection of human behavior and motivation, and business goals.  Dr. Backstrom works with leaders to build their emotional intelligence, competencies and skills, supports them in building effective teams, and guides them in aligning strategy, goals, mission and people to ensure success.  She is passionate about helping women achieve their career goals, and offers mentorship for professional women to help them overcome obstacles in their path and reach objectives.

Live.Work.Think.Play shares observations concerning a wide array of topics from running a company — to the perfect fragrance. It is designed to share lessons learned from a variety of perspectives.

1 thought on “Disrupting a Short-Cut: Understanding (Unintended) Bias”

  1. from the article above this was stated “I’d appreciate it if you would describe my contributions in terms of the work to be done. Perhaps instead you could say “Karen successfully managed the project time line to complete every objective.”

    While I understand various needs to validate positions of “leading” versus just “contributing” at every turn in a “sterotype” setting, even men would not say such things as represented above, about any male or any female. “Teams” generally do big work and the team needs to be treated as ONE. If you are a brain surgeon, then clearly Dr X or Y clearly saved the patient, either man or woman surgeon, and it would be presented as an individual contributor, but in office business, I think not!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s