Unconscious bias – what is it and how does it affect our coaching practice?

Posted in: The Borderless Coaching Blog, The Diversity Blog- Mar 14, 2016 Comments Off

By Carol Campayne

Unconscious bias – what is it and how does it affect our coaching practice?

unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is everywhere in the coaching space. And it is holding us back as coaches and holding our clients back too.

But what is unconscious bias and what can we do about it?

If you have a brain, you have a bias

(David Rok; CEO, NeuroLeadership Institute)

Neuroscience confirms the brain is wired to be biased. Our backgrounds, experiences, and identity all influence how we see the world. Research shows that race, gender, and age differences are noticed in milliseconds; and that bias is in the space even if two people share similar backgrounds and look and sound exactly the same.

In my view unconscious bias is a bias I don’t know I have. It’s hidden yet quickly accessible, hardwired into us yet subtle, and automatically triggered. It’s something we’re not in control of when we go about our day-to-day business on auto pilot. We’re not aware of it, so unless someone points out evidence of our unconscious bias we can remain blissfully ignorant.

It’s not our ‘fault’ and it is our responsibility. Although the brain is an amazing organ, it’s not equipped to process the billions of bits of information that bombard it every second. Filters in the brain protect it from becoming overloaded. These filters control the information flow so that only approximately 2,000 bits of information per second enter the brain. Consequently we use short cuts and our biases are all part of the short cut process. Unfortunately, this involuntary response can often lead to misreading people and situations with negative consequences. Our biases, what you might call our gut reactions, limit us and others.

The good news is that we can do something about it and in doing so release the potential that rests in the myriad of differences that make each one of us unique and special.

The coach and unconscious bias

The fundamental cornerstone of the coaching profession holds that “clients are naturally creative, resourceful and whole”. And yet, neuroscience is telling us that our unconscious bias can get in the way of powerful transformative coaching. We must first become more aware of our own bias and having done so equip ourselves with the skills, competences and heart to fully cross the borders of bias in our coaching relationships and in service of our client’s agenda.

We cannot be truly effective coaches without mastering our unconscious bias.

Leaders and unconscious bias

Today’s leaders across the public or private sector face many challenges. I know from experience coaching leaders that many have to navigate complex cultural challenges, effectively lead diverse and global teams or integrate diverse disciplines and functions. Unconscious bias gets in the way. At best it slows down the rate of change or degree of success achieved, at worse it can completely sabotage it.

Bias consciousness and self-management, and a perspective that holds diversity as a strength, sets the world class leaders apart from the rest.

Retraining the mind

Just raising awareness of bias is not enough. An awareness of our unconscious bias opens our eyes to new possibilities but doing something positive with this awareness is a necessity. It means going to the next level of competence and consciousness that Daniel Kahneman describes as System 2 thinking. It means slowing down our decision making, sitting with our bias, which itself will create an element of discomfort. It means being prepared to ‘flip the script’ and work with, rather than against, the factor that’s triggered your bias. To genuinely value difference in a conscious and intentional way.

Our Borderless Coaching approach to executive coaching and our Borderless Coaching Coach Training Programme tackles the subject of unconscious bias head-on. Firstly, bringing deep understanding and awareness of the biases we have and how they limit our decisions, our actions and our relationships with others. And then, providing techniques and practices we can use to sit with our biases, work with them and develop new neural pathways to turn the bias trigger into a bias treat.

In my view the skill of recognising and holding a mirror to unconscious bias is something a leadership and executive coach has to develop, if they want to be the best coach they can possibly be.

Carol Campayne
Borderless Coaching

Take a look at this McKinsey & Co video – Can you spot unconscious bias in action?

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