Insights for leaders: unconscious bias in decision making

The concept of unconscious bias has received a considerable amount of attention recently.  But what exactly is unconscious bias; how does unconscious bias affect decision-making, and what are the implications of unconscious bias for leader-managers whose role demands a high level of effective decision-making?

Two of the biggest corporate brands found themselves in the headlines recently following highly negative coverage of their staff behaviour towards black customers.

In the United States, a Starbucks manager called the police after refusing to allow two African American customers to use the bathroom facilities. Subsequently, Starbucks closed its 8,000 coffee houses for one day in May to provide unconscious bias training to all its staff.

More recently, Louis Smith, the British double-winning Olympian silver medal gymnast tweeted about his and another black passenger’s experience while travelling first class on Virgin Trains.

The reaction to both the Starbucks and Virgin Trains incidents prompted many to label these as examples of unconscious bias.

Implicit within these two examples is the notion that the Starbucks manager and the Virgin Trains staff member were making decision – the decision to deny the two African Caribbean men access to the bathroom, and the decision to ask to see the train tickets of the two black passengers on the Virgin train – based on something else other than, say, the companies’ operating policies or procedures.  In essence, that the Starbucks manager and Virgin Trains staff member were basing their decisions – and ultimately taking action – on a set of assumptions, stereotypes or perceptions about ‘others’ who are ‘different’.

But, there is more to unconscious bias than prejudice against one group by another.  Unconscious bias is not limited to race, ethnicity, gender or other equality considerations, such as age, sexual orientation of issues of diversity.

Research suggests that there are in the order of 150 unconscious biases, and furthermore, that every one of us possesses unconscious biases.

Therefore, if we accept the premise that each and every one of us is susceptible to unconscious biases, it follows that we each have a responsibility to uncover and understand the biases which shape our decision making, so that we can take steps to mitigate their negative effects.  This is especially true for those in leadership roles whose decisions, generally, have massive implications for the success of their teams, businesses, companies, or organisations; the needs and expectations of their customers, communities and stakeholders, and the impact on the wider eco system in which their organisation operates.

Understanding unconscious bias

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift. (Albert Einstein)

If asked, most leaders would answer in the positive that they consider themselves to be rational, logical beings who see the world as it really is and make decisions based on rational, objective analysis.  (Now, take a moment to rate yourself on the extent to which you agree or disagree that you are a rational, logical person who sees the world as it really is).

Yet, as we are increasingly discovering from the emerging field of neuroscience, decision making is, more often than not, informed by greater irrationality than we are either aware of or want to acknowledge and accept.

In his highly acclaimed book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, argues that people’s decisions depart from the strict rationality assumed by economists.

The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way.  You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analysing it.” (Daniel Kahneman).

Kahneman distinguishes between two forms of decision making, which he refers to as System 1 and System 2 thinking.

  • System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; it is always switched on, and is capable of making decisions very quickly based on very little information; it is an automatic and unconscious way of thinking.System 1 is effortless, requiring little energy or attention, but is prone to biases and systematic errors.
  • System 2 is slow and lazy; it is an effortful, controlled and deliberative way of thinking, needing a lot of energy and cannot work without attention, but once engaged it can filter the instincts of system 1.

A useful definition of unconscious bias (also referred to as cognitive or implicit bias) offered by Carlos Davidovitch is:

ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason and make decisions.”

These ingrained habits of thought are largely unconscious and the result of your upbringing, beliefs, values, cultural backgrounds and preferences.

For the sake of simplicity then, the point being made here is that, System 1 supports and sustains your unconscious biases.

Types of unconscious bias

It follows that mitigating your unconscious biases, requires, firstly, that you acknowledge you are susceptible to unconscious bias and secondly, that you consciously engage your System 2 in making decisions or taking action.

This is easier said than done.  Why?

Because, people generally do not know that they have implicit biases.

Furthermore, the very act of deciding you are susceptible to unconscious bias may demand you challenge your prevailing thinking.  For example, you may be reading this article with a huge amount of scepticism, and dismissal. You may have found information that discredits everything you have read here and confirmed your view that this is all nonsense.

You may also think that I have been selective in seeking out information that confirms my views about unconscious bias.

As such, you and I may be operating with Confirmation Bias, one of the most common biases.   Confirmation bias says that we seek out information that supports our prevailing beliefs, values and perceptions and ignore or discount information or evidence that contradicts or counteracts what we believe.  So, you may have found lots of other information that supports your stance, i.e. that unconscious bias is all a bit of nonsense.

Alternatively, yours may be an Overconfidence Bias, you may believe that, even if there is such a thing as unconscious bias, you are in charge and in control and there is no way you could possess an implicit bias, despite what the objective evidence might say.

Or you may draw on Optimism and Experience Biases.  You may be influenced by how you have approached decision making in the past, even if this is not working for you now. You may be saying to yourself that when you have taken decisions in the past they have worked out successfully.  The context around you may be shifting, there may be more complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity but, you have managed to succeed before and somehow it will work out again.

3 ways to make less biased decisions

  1. Slow down your thinking– pause and breathe; leaders are often too busy to take time to think and reflect. Yet all the evidence suggests that reflection is critical to effective decision making.  Peter Bregman argues that all we need is four seconds to replace counter-productive and unhelpful habits.  As Bregman states “reducing your momentum is the first step to freeing yourself from the beliefs, habits, feelings, and busyness that may be limiting you.” (Peter Bregman, 18 Minutes, 2011).
  1. Challenge yourself– how can you challenge yourself and change your thoughts? In my experience working as a coach, the first step to change is acknowledgment.  Acknowledging that you are susceptible to unconscious bias creates the condition for change.  Be ready to test your assumptions and remain open to being wrong by asking yourself challenging questions.  For example, one of the most powerful coaching questions I often ask my clients is: ‘and what else?’ (AWE). Get into a habit of exploring these questions:
  • And what else is possible?
  • And what else may be true?
  • And what else may be happening?
  • And what else am I assuming?
  1. seek feedback– unconscious biases can be very difficult to overcome; however research shows that feedback can have a significant effect.  Feedback is a really useful tool to help leaders gain more information and to correct errors.


Keep in mind that each and every one of us possesses unconscious biases, but if you are aware of them and challenge them you can become a better decision maker.