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Gleb Tsipursky


Quality Professionals Need to Defeat Unconscious Bias

Implicit bias: Identify, rectify, repeat

Published: Tuesday, July 7, 2020 - 12:03

How can quality professionals defeat unconscious bias? First, you need to know what unconscious bias is.

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on. It differs from cognitive bias, which is a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the most likely way of reaching our goals.

In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want. Despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns, these are two separate and distinct concepts.

Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains, while unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example—a geographic instead of one across time—most people in the United States don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.

Unconscious discrimination

As a frequent speaker and trainer on diversity and inclusion to address potential unconscious discriminatory behavior, I regularly share in speeches that black Americans suffer from police harassment and violence at a much higher rate than white people. Often, some participants (usually white) try to defend the police by claiming that black people are more violent and more likely to break the law than whites. They thus attribute police harassment to the internal characteristics of black people (implying that it is deserved), not to the external context of police behavior.

In reality—as I point out in my response to these folks—research shows that black people are harassed and harmed by police at a much higher rate for the same kind of activity. For example, a white person walking by a police office is statistically much less likely to be stopped and frisked than a black person. At the other end of things, a white person resisting arrest is much less likely to be violently beaten than a black one.

However, I am careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes, it indeed is deliberate, with white police officers consciously believing that black Americans deserve much more scrutiny than whites. At other times, the discriminatory behavior results from unconscious, implicit thought processes that the police officer would not consciously endorse.

Of course, the unconscious nature of such discrimination in no way makes such behavior acceptable. Instead, it shows a difference in intent and awareness. Implicit bias can—and does—exist in people who feel, very strongly, that they are not biased. That includes police officers, hiring personnel, and quality professionals alike.

Contextual discrimination

Although implicit bias often comes from our upbringing and background, our context can be just as important. Consider the internal organizational culture within police departments. If implicit bias came solely from our own prior beliefs, then black police officers should presumably show no discrimination toward black people in their policing. However, research shows that black police officers may also discriminate against black people when evaluating potential suspects and in using violence. That finding demonstrates that part of implicit bias against black suspects comes from internal cultures within police departments, rather than solely preexisting racist attitudes before someone joins a police department.

Such cultures are perpetuated by internal norms, policies, and training procedures, and any organization—not just police departments—wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than solely attributing racism to individuals. In other words, instead of saying it’s a few bad apples in a barrel of overall good ones, the key is recognizing that implicit bias is a systemic issue, and the structure and joints of the barrel needs to be fixed.

With these additional statistics and discussion of implicit bias, most people understand that, yes, there is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. Others aren't convinced. It’s much more comforting to feel that police officers are right, and anyone targeted by police deserves it. In turn, they are highly reluctant to accept the need to focus more effort and energy on protecting black Americans and other minorities by focusing on the structural challenges facing these groups. The issue of unconscious bias doesn’t match their intuition, and thus they reject this concept, despite extensive and strong evidence for its pervasive role. It takes a series of subsequent follow-up conversations and interventions to move the needle. A single training is almost never sufficient, both in my experience and according to research.

The crucial thing to highlight is that there is no shame or blame in implicit bias because it’s not stemming from deliberate intent of the individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight defensive response among reluctant audiences, helping them hear and accept the issue.

How to fight unconscious bias

While bias, explicit or implicit, has been highlighted in the news recently, especially as it pertains to policing, the problem is more widespread and exists to some extent in any organization. The four points below explain how to fight unconscious bias and illustrate broader patterns you need to follow to address unconscious bias within your organization. Doing so will allow you to make the best people decisions. After all, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgment choices because we’re simply following our intuitions, and they are laden with unconscious bias.

1. Start by learning about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias yourself, so that you know what you’re trying to address. In regard to quality professionals, the biggest problem I’ve seen is a tendency to underestimate the expertise and, well, quality management of those who don’t belong to the same tribe as you, especially those who don’t look like the typical cast of quality professionals (those who aren’t white and male, for example).

2. Then, you need to convey to people who you want to influence, such as your employees or any other group or even yourself, that there should be no shame or guilt in acknowledging our instincts. By not playing the shame game, you can safely acknowledge that you may be giving too little credit to the work of those who don’t look like typical quality professionals.

3. Next, you need to convey the dangers associated with following those biased intuitions, to build up an emotional investment into changing behaviors. It’s just as dangerous to underestimate an employee’s skills based on implicit bias as it is to overestimate a person’s skills because that person looks like us.

4. Finally, you need to convey the right mental habits that will help them make the best choices. For example, you can internally compensate for our intuitive tendency to underestimate those who don’t belong to our tribe—for example, the quality management tribe—by giving them more credit than seems intuitive to you. You’ll want to experiment and see how much you need to compensate, as well as how much those whom you can influence need to compensate.

Of course, racism is only one kind of implicit bias that quality professionals need to consider. It’s the one top-of-mind right now, due to the widespread protests against police officers using excessive force.

However, just a couple of years ago, the rise of the “Me Too” movement highlighted issues around gender bias and sexual harassment, especially in the workplace but also more broadly. In turn, the landmark Supreme Court case decision on June 15, 2020, ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity are categories that require protection by employers. Discrimination based on religion (or lack thereof) is also forbidden by federal law.

The techniques outlined above work just as well on all of these other types of implicit biases, and will prove effective as long as you don’t take shortcuts, and you consider people’s emotions as paramount to addressing such problems. Remember, a one-time training is insufficient for defeating implicit bias. It takes a long-term commitment, constant discipline, and deep emotional buy-in from your target audience to overcome unconscious bias.


About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect quality leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (2019). His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and more than 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course.