How unconscious bias impacts decision making

By Gale Mote / Guest Column

We know teams make better, faster deci­sions. When a group creates an environ­ment that respects the diverse skills, tal­ents and viewpoints of its members, great outcomes can happen.

Simply respecting diverse members, however, is not enough. Each of these voices must be heard, considered and un­derstood to build commitment and en­sure everyone is on the same page when it comes time to execute. Diversity and in­clusion are not the same thing.

Unconscious bias frequently prevents team members from being truly open to the ideas and perspectives of others. It occurs when we make spontaneous judg­ments about people or situations based on our past experiences, culture, background or exposure to social media.

Say you are sitting in a meeting when the newest member of the team offers a unique idea to resolve a recent custom­er complaint. She is a twenty-something who came from the retail industry, a world away from hydraulics engineering. You think to yourself as she enthusiasti­cally expresses her solution, “She is so naïve. She thinks that because she spent time checking out customers at a dress shop she can solve this complex technical customer issue. How did she get on this team anyway?”

The question is not whether we have biases – we do. But where do they hide? We instinctively categorize people based on criteria such as age, gender, race, cul­tural background, personality, title, edu­cation or experience.

How do you feel about people who own a handgun? Don’t attend church? Wear a nose ring? Speak Hindu? Can you feel yourself taking a position and putting people into boxes? It’s natural. We feel safe when we are surrounded with the fa­miliar and try to distance ourselves from what is not.

For teams to be extraordinary, we must overcome our unconscious biases and cre­ate an inclusive space for everyone to con­tribute the best of themselves to the team.

Own it – admit that you have biases. You will be more inclined to pay attention to the assumptions you make and the con­clusions you draw based on what others say and do.

Next, ask yourself, is the bias really true? How do I know? Engage in a healthy dose of reality testing to confirm or deny what you think and feel to be true. Just because someone is young doesn’t mean she can’t be technically oriented. A back­ground in retail doesn’t mean that prob­lem-solving techniques don’t apply in the world of engineering.

Lastly, work to set your biases aside. In the 1980s, orchestras initiated blind auditions where the mu­sicians would play behind a curtain so the judges could only hear the music, not see the person. As a result, the number of women invited to join has in­creased fivefold. What if you could see beyond the person’s appearance, background, title or age?

In a team setting, it is important to turn off the part of your brain that says “no,” “we’ve tried that before” or “it can’t be done.” Stoke ideas before you soak them. In the world of improvisation, ac­tors are taught to say “yes and” not “yes, but!”

Really listen to the ideas of others wherever they come from and ask questions. This shows that you are truly interested in what the other person has to say and sends a message of inclusion. You also gain valuable information to better understand the oth­er person’s point of view.

Probe for examples or explore how the idea might work. Is there a way to test the idea? Dis­cuss the pros and cons of all ideas and alternatives, keeping a strong focus on the shared goal or prob­lem statement. How will this help us to accomplish our goal?

Be sure to speak up – your colleagues are not mind readers. It is possible to disagree without being dis­agreeable. “I hear your desire to close the deal quickly and I also feel we need to ensure we have included all the appropriate parties to be sure we can deliver what we promise.” Engage a devil’s advocate to test all assumptions. Invite others to challenge your posi­tion – “What am I missing? Who has a different idea? Make me smarter – what else needs to be taken into consideration?”

Making exceptional team decisions requires that all team members weight in so they can buy in. Overcoming unconscious bias and developing a culture of inclusion is foundational for success.

Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at