This document is part of the Victorian Public Service executive employment resource.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, can be defined as the influence of mental processes over which the individual does not have conscious control.

Unconscious biases may be based on preconceived attitudes and impressions, stereotypes, and social perceptions. They can influence how an individual interprets information and thereby impede their ability to make objective decisions and accurate assessments.

Why we need to remove unconscious bias from performance conversations

Unconscious bias can impede a manager’s ability to objectively evaluate the performance of other employees by allowing the evaluation to be influenced by factors unrelated to performance. As a result, managers may unintentionally discriminate against people and rate their performance higher or lower than they deserve based solely on their performance.

Common types of biases

Bias can be present in various forms including:

First impressions

This means forming an immediate mental image of a person. In particular, we tend to judge ‘trustworthiness’, ‘confidence’ and ‘competence’ from a wide variety of characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, language, physical traits, attire, accent, posture and voice.

Stereotyping/implicit association

This is expecting all members of certain groups to have the same attributes without having actual information about that individual. We make a positive or negative generalisation with factors such as gender, age, disability, ethnicity, qualifications, attire, etc. with aspects like food, work, social and economic status and other facets of life.

Affinity bias

This means automatically favouring people like ourselves. It is natural to have preferences, however it is discriminatory to disadvantage an individual or a group because of out affinity to perceived similarities such as educational background, mutual hobbies and interests, ethnic background etc.

Confirmatory bias or Self-fulfilling prophecy

This is the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs. For example a manager who has recently hired an employee may look to confirm their view that the employee is still in the learning process. The manager would fail to see the true performance of their employee.

Selective attention

This is having perceptual blindness when not paying attention. For example, our unconscious mind may not see positive behaviour or competence of an individual or group because it is not looking for it.

Priming

This is activating associations in memory just before an action or task. For example, an individual may remind us of someone we know influencing our evaluation of their performance.

Holding a good performance discussion

The manager must introspect and recognise any potential bias before any performance conversation, whether it involves providing ratings, providing feedback or engaging in a career development conversation.

Repeated performance of an action helps the brain create a pattern and form habits. Through regular introspection we shift a less biased review process to the automatic part of our brain, ensuring our commitment to a more consistently objective process for holding performance conversations.

Some questions for introspection are:

  • What kind of biases have I experienced myself and how has that affected me?
  • Does this decision have an impact on serving my own agenda?
  • Are there differences in work styles between me and the employee I am having a conversation with? Are they wrong or just different styles? Can these differences influence my rating?
  • What strategies can I put in place to completely engage myself in the discussion?