Dr. Shirley Davis

Unconscious Bias in Leadership Decision-Making (Part 1)

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A 3 minute read

Dr. Davis had the honor of being a featured writer for The Source Magazine, the official magazine for the Florida Society of Association Executives. Read the article below and stayed tuned for Part 2!

It couldn’t be more appropriate to address unconscious bias than at a time we are experiencing significant demographic disruptions, polarization and divisiveness, globalization, and political discord. This two-part article attempts to introduce this topic as a leadership competency as well as an organizational strategy. Everyone has bias. It’s a part of the human make up. We need bias to protect us from danger. Biologically we are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests. But when left unchecked,
biases can have a negative impact in every interaction. With the vast amount of diversity that makes up our global workforce, including more women, people of color, LGBTQ, veterans, introverts and extroverts, immigrants, people with different abilities, thinking styles, and personalities, and five generations, to name a few – the level of complexity and potential conflicts that can arise from unconscious bias is sure to increase.

“Unconscious bias is a spontaneous judgment, positive or negative, that occurs within 3-5 seconds of encountering a person. Attitudes or stereotypes are reinforced over time, and affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”

Every day, decisions are made in the workplace — including sourcing, selection, development, pay, promotions, terminations, assigning projects, constructing teams and creating business strategy. Whether we recognize it or not, unconscious bias enters into every one of these decisions. Having worked in Human Resources for over 20 years, I am intimately aware of how leaders think, behave and make decisions about all aspects of the employee experience. In particular, I’ve worked with hiring managers as they reviewed candidates from diverse backgrounds and I’ve heard comments such as, “She didn’t look me in the eye or shake my hand with a firm handshake so I don’t think she’s cut out to lead this team,” or “We need a Millennial for this new project on technology,” or “This job requires
a demanding schedule and I don’t think she could be available.” In other instances, leaders may assign special projects to team members who think like them, or invite only the guys to the golf outing assuming the women on the team wouldn’t be interested, or delegate administrative tasks such as notetaking or ordering lunch to the only female in the meeting. These are both overt and subtle forms of bias and both can have a negative impact on the workplace culture and perceptions of fairness. Unconscious bias is an opinion, positive or negative, we have about a group or person. It occurs when we make spontaneous judgments about people or situations based on our past experiences, culture, background or exposure to media. These spontaneous judgments occur within 3-5 seconds of encountering a person. The attitudes or
stereotypes that develop early in life (as early as 1-6 years old), are reinforced over time, and affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.


It is not enough to be aware that everyone has bias and therefore assume we are off the hook. All leaders, particularly people-managers, have a responsibility to ensure that their biases don’t negatively impact employment-related decisions. They should practice mindfulness — STOP, PAUSE and THINK before making these decisions and be more intentional about valuing diversity and learning how to LEAD across differences. They should learn how to leverage the gifts and talents of ALL employees, recognizing that great talent comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, preferences, backgrounds and ethnicities.

The first step in managing unconscious bias in the workplace is to ensure employees understand exactly what unconscious bias is, when it happens and the ways in which it can impact how they work and treat each other. Educating employees formally through training and informally through multiple communication methods is the start of what should be a continuous learning process. Employees should also know that they are a part of shaping the culture into an inclusive, welcoming and collaborative workplace.

In the next issue, I will conclude this two-part series with how to move from Unconscious Bias to Intentional Inclusive Leadership.