Implicit bias. It is a term we hear a lot, but what does it mean?
The term implicit bias has come to be known (or thought of) as unconscious bias. I am less inclined to use implicit bias to mean that someone is unconscious of their bias. Rather, I am more inclined to refer to it as the acting upon bias even if not explicitly stated.
To have an honest conversation about this topic, we must recognize four aspects of bias: conscious, unconscious, explicit, and implicit.
Please keep in mind that I am not using the terms “implicit bias” and “unconscious bias” interchangeably, as they are two distinct kinds of bias.
Bias is a preference, a bend toward a preconceived judgment or opinion.
It can apply to anything, such as weather, pets, or food, and can be as simple as preferring cake over ice cream. Here we are talking about bias as it relates to people. We are discussing the bias applied to individuals or groups that can result in an adverse opinion or leaning, formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge. It leads to an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or supposed characteristics.
Bias can be conscious or unconscious, explicit (overt) or implicit (covert). If I say I like cake more than ice cream, this is a conscious and explicit bias. I am aware of it, and I openly exhibit it in action and/or words. Here are the differentiators between various biases:
Conscious Bias: Awareness of a belief, attitude, assumption, or stereotype.
Unconscious Bias: Unawareness of a belief, attitude, assumption, or stereotype.
Explicit Bias: Knowingly and overtly acting upon a belief, attitude, assumption, or stereotype.
Implicit Bias: Knowingly or unknowingly acting upon the belief, attitude, assumption, or stereotype. It is covert in nature in that the person acting upon the bias may be unaware that they are doing so, or they may be aware but do so in a covert (hidden) manner.
When an individual holds an unconscious bias they will inevitably act upon this bias in an implicit way. They are unaware of their bias, and they are therefore unaware that this bias is impacting their decision-making. This blog addresses unconscious, implicitly-acted upon bias.
Let’s be clear, there is conscious bias explicitly acted upon and conscious bias implicitly acted upon. As this is a coachable moment blog, we will not be addressing those. Why? Anyone who either explicitly or implicitly acts on their conscious bias is not likely on this page looking for coaching to be a better version of themselves. They are likely happily acting out their bias. This blog is for people actively working to be a better version of themselves.
Unconscious implicit bias significantly impacts people’s lives and careers.
Even those of us who consciously and genuinely believe in fairness, equity, and inclusion, but hold unconscious biases and can act in ways that misalign with our values. These unconscious biases can play out in our everyday decisions, such as selecting who we hire for a job, choose for a promotion, place in honors classes, single out in a classroom for behavior infractions, or selecting which treatment options we offer to patients. We know from extensive research that this kind of biased decision-making plays out consistently in our schools, in hospitals, in policing, and in places of employment. These biases not only impact individual employees, but the organization as well. Biased behavior harms employee performance and the diversity, equity, and inclusion of a workplace, which ultimately impacts organizational performance.
The question is not if it is happening, it is when it is happening and what we can do about it.
The aim is to mitigate unconscious implicit bias by helping people become aware of their unconscious bias and resulting decision-making. With awareness they can begin to challenge their bias and make better decisions aligned with their values.
About the Author
Nicole Butts is an accomplished Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) executive, strategist, coach, facilitator, and sought-after public speaker. She has served as a chief diversity officer; a director of employee diversity, inclusion, and climate; director of equal employment; manager of affirmative action; and an executive consultant. During her 20-year career, she has built three inaugural DEI offices within institutions and coached, trained, and counseled senior leadership on diversity, equity, and inclusion matters. Nicole is the founder of NLYB Solutions, helping executives, executive teams, and organizations courageously and effectively navigate personal, professional, and organizational DEI journeys.