14 Ways Leaders Can Effectively Address Unconscious Biases In Others

People don’t usually mean to behave in a biased manner or make others around them feel uncomfortable; many times, they aren’t even aware that they’re doing it when it happens. If such situations create problems in the workplace, those in leadership positions are responsible for addressing the unconscious biases of team members. 

When employees and colleagues complain about a peer or a manager who seems to be operating under the influence of an unconscious bias, senior leadership must handle the issue delicately if everyone is to walk away with a lesson learned and more trust and confidence in each other.

Below, 14 members of Forbes Coaches Council share effective ways for a leader to help others recognize unconscious biases in themselves, get to the root of them, and begin to resolve the problems they cause.

1. Facilitate Self-Awareness

Some unconscious biases are actually stored in the preconscious mind. Increased self-awareness helps bring preconscious beliefs, thoughts and feelings into the conscious mind. Leaders can facilitate self-awareness by inviting team members to explore underlying biases and using a curious “I wonder if” mindset when thinking about perceived biases. – Ron Young, Trove, Inc.

2. Avoid Making Assumptions

Nothing provokes judgment quite as quickly as a situation already laden with judgment. Avoid making any assumptions about the situation and what is right or wrong, and check your temptation to do so. No one learns when they don’t feel safe. By approaching the situation with an eye for the big picture and a compassionate understanding that unconscious bias exists within all of us, you’ll help that employee be receptive to seeing and learning. – Tevis Trower, Balance Integration Corporation

3. Remember That It’s Not About You

I believe a fundamental philosophy of leadership is to embrace this concept: “It’s not about you.” This philosophy should be shared with team members and made a focal point of individual development. Through the application of this philosophy, a leader can get a team member to consider issues from the perspectives of others, and thereby help them identify and eliminate unconscious biases. – John Lowe, Ty Boyd, Inc.

4. Use Analogies To Uncover Blind Spots

If the individual demonstrates openness to exploring their unconscious bias, a conversation can be straightforward. However, they just may not see or understand it—not because of belligerence or unkindness but because it is a blind spot. In that case, analogies are incredibly helpful. Find a comparison that fits the individual and applies to the bias affecting others. Analogous experiences create empathy. – Leann Wolff, Great Outcomes Consulting

5. Communicate Empathy And A Desire To Understand

Bring empathy, compassion and a genuine desire to understand what might have prompted that person’s bias. Once the employee feels your care in recognizing their thoughts, feelings and wants, you can build a collaborative approach to heighten awareness of the unintentional impact of the bias on others and explore how the employee may communicate and interact to avoid the unconscious bias. – Valerio Pascotto, IGEOS

6. Counsel The Person On Their Perceived Bias

I would counsel the person that there is a perception that they have a bias. I’d be as specific as possible about that bias and share that the perception feels like reality to others, reminding them of our commitment to an inclusive, diverse environment. I’d encourage them to explore this bias with me or a diversity, equity and inclusion educator or coach to see what they can change to manage more inclusively going forward. – Jennifer Wilson, ConvergenceCoaching, LLC

7. Guide The Person, Not The Situation 

Make sure you guide the person, not the situation. Most of the time, human beings do not understand their own biases and how they manifest. Instead of resolving situations, for example, a coach-leader can help employees look within themselves as human beings to create awareness around who they are, how they think and what they believe in, then reflect on how others get impacted by that. – Rajat Garg, Coach-To-Transformation

8. Leverage Behavioral Assessments 

One process that reduces bias and boosts more objective hiring and talent development is the use of behavioral assessments. These research-supported assessments allow employee selection based on the behaviors essential for the position as well as the company’s cultural values. Specific behaviors that reflect the organization’s values and enhance team communication can also be coached and learned. – Cheri Rainey, Rainey Leadership Learning

9. Open A Dialogue With Employees

Deal with it head-on. Bring in the employees who have voiced complaints and/or issues and openly tell them that you’re listening to them and that you care about their opinions, and take notes. Depending on the seriousness of the nature of the complaints, assure them that you will address the issues directly with the manager, but that you want to hear their opinions too. As the wise saying goes, “Honesty is the best policy.” – Paul Silitsky, Paul Allen Career Advisory Group

10. Address The Belief System Behind It

Both unconscious and conscious biases have their roots in belief systems. Unless the belief system is addressed, change may be superficial. Having a conversation to get to the belief behind the bias would be step one. When the realization is achieved, the bias would no longer be unconscious; any future cause for concern will have a more rational basis than something as prejudiced as bias. – Sadhana Somasekhar, Platinum Infosystems Pvt. Ltd.

11. Share Feedback From Peers And Your Own Observations

Help the employee understand how they are being perceived and then discuss how it might impact the team and individual co-workers. Ask the employee to respond in terms of how they view and recognize their own behavior and keep it an open/safe dialogue by emphasizing your support and desire for them to be their very best in their role. – Mark Gasche, North Shore Career Management LLC

12. Approach In A Supportive And Serving Manner

Bringing attention to the issue is obviously the needed step, but in this situation the approach is key. When attacked, people will seek to protect and defend. If I want that person to receive this feedback well and be open to addressing those biases, then I usually approach them in a way that is not attacking but supporting and serving, so they understand I am seeking to help them. – Cole Taylor, The Starting Line

13. Create An Eye-Opening Experience

Create an eye-opening experience, but keep it safe and focused on learning. Too many people ignore these issues while others play the blame game. We must dive in. Experiential activities cause us to feel and explore our attitudes/beliefs. It is a moment of possibility. Combine that experience with a reflective and safe debrief to promote learning, understanding and crucial conversations. – Brad Federman, PerformancePoint LLC

14. Create Training On Common Scenarios

We created some training on common scenarios within the organization and then brought in actors to role-play the scenarios for every member of the staff to attend. This really landed well with the teams as they had no idea of the impact it was having on the company. You can also have HR anonymize resumes and remove university names to reduce the impact of initial bias in hiring. – Victoria Canham, Ahead Together Ltd

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1. Combine Gifts, Passions And Innovation

Know who you are today by doing a fresh analysis of your gifts and passions. Use the results of your analysis as your lens for identifying unmet needs in the business world. Think outside the box by breaking away from conventional wisdom. Combining your gifts and passions with innovative ideas is foundational to a successful business that meets your and your consumers’ needs. – Ron Young, Trove, Inc.

2. Gain Clarity And Choose Metrics For Success

I’ve had numerous pro-service clients do this, and most of them have considered it. The most important thing is to have clarity about why you want to start a business. The second thing is to very carefully choose the metrics that will indicate to yourself that you are succeeding. Your “why” and your metrics will keep you grounded when the going gets tough—and it will. – Randy Shattuck, The Shattuck Group

3. Leverage Your Experience And Do A SWOT Analysis

Know your strengths, be clear on your personal motivation and leverage your current experience and insights that you have developed over the years in your industry. Think about the pains and gains your clients have experienced and gaps that have not been filled. I also recommend doing a SWOT analysis to gain clarity and alignment and to determine the value proposition. – Breshana Miller, Kairos Coaching & Consulting, LLC

4. Brainstorm With Close Friends

You can’t hesitate or keep your new business too close to your chest. You need to brainstorm with your closest friends, your professional network and those whom you trust. Bounce your ideas off of others and see if they resonate. What do they think your new business is worth? Who do they think the customers would be? Do they know someone who would buy? Have that conversation 100 times and get to work. – Jacob Warwick, ThinkWarwick

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5. Match The Commercial Proposition With The Value You Offer

It is important to match the commercial proposition with the value that you are offering. Before leaving, start researching the potential market to ensure there is a real need. When you are clear on the commercial viability, you can reverse-engineer the process to ensure the proposition fits with your personal drive and passion. – Claudine Reid, PJ’s Community Service

6. Have A Strong Support System In Place

Being an entrepreneur and working for a corporation require different mindsets. To sustain the personal drive and passion, it helps to have a strong support system in place—people who are just as passionate and driven as you and believe in the success of the new business, such as friends, a mastermind group or an experienced coach who can ensure there is a balance between work and personal well-being. – Masha Malka, The One Minute Coach

7. Don’t Follow Your Passion—Bring It To An Opportunity

Don’t follow your passion. I’d rather you bring your passion and drive to an opportunity. The first step is finding a way to improve lives in exchange for profit, then apply your natural passion and drive to improve as many of those lives as possible as efficiently as possible. Because when you do that really well, vision, momentum, growth and, eventually, profit are the results. – David Robertson, Growthpoint Coaching Co.

8. Leverage What Makes You Irreplaceable

You need to clarify the market need for what you do via research, interviews and more. In regard to fulfilling your own needs, a reflective, holistic approach is required to uncover your own personal wants, needs and values to be successful. And above all else, you must uncover something that makes you irreplaceable in the market that you serve. Get all those right and then go for it! – Linda Martin, Linda Martin Results

9. Connect With Your Four Selves

First connect with your four selves—intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical—and be crystal clear about your purpose and commitment to it. Launching a new venture requires all your energy and commitment. Sometimes, it’s rough. Second, get deep input and feedback from those around you—both your trusted network and your more fearless critics. The wider the scope, the richer the insights. – Luis Costa, Luis Costa – coach · facilitator · speaker

10. Enroll Clients To Help Craft Your Company Vision

Get connected to your purpose, build a business plan around your core values and enroll the customers you want to serve to help craft the company vision. In doing this, you will likely find that your needs and the needs of your future customers are very aligned. Trust that a successful launch will follow and that you will have a tribe of allies ready to offer guidance and support when needed. – Emily Rogers, Emily Rogers Consulting + Coaching

11. Outline The Customer Journey And Your Sales Funnel

First, outline the customer journey to define the scope of their need. Second, outline your marketing and sales funnel. If you are not excited to do that, hire someone who is or don’t launch. If the idea of selling and marketing for hours every week does not excite you, pursue a hobby instead. Third, if you don’t have the drive or passion to build a business, get a dog. The dog will love you back every day. – Kelly Tyler Byrnes, Voyage Consulting Group

12. Experiment With A Minimum Viable Product

Take small steps. Too many people get sucked into the entrepreneurial dream without realizing how tough it can be. I would suggest experimenting with the product—take a minimum viable product (MVP) to the market and get feedback. Leaning on your personal drive, experiment with your own business identity. Too many people overestimate their passion and drive and underestimate the challenge. – Devika Das, CORE Executive Presence

13. Take An Inside-Out Approach

Start with your mission and vision. I believe, as a coach, taking an inside-out approach where executives can start exploring their passion as well as what they would see as success for this new endeavor is key. Then, we can explore the marketplace and how this would be sustained as a successful business by developing a strategic business plan. Allow your personal drive to set the tone for success. – Bryan Powell, Executive Coaching Space

14. Build A Business Around Your Retirement Dreams

Start by thinking about your retirement. If you grew your business and sold it for a killing, what would you then be doing in life? At that point, when you wouldn’t have to think about money and profits, what would you be doing with your time? That’s what you should build your business around. It’s bound to be an area where a strong customer or market need is coupled with your own passion and drive. – Vinesh Sukumaran, Vinesh Sukumaran Consulting

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