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Judge me by my name do you?

unconscious bias Feb 08, 2022
judge gavel

…is the title of a fabulous article written by David Sidhu in The Conversation in which he explores the symbolism behind some of the names from the epic space franchise.

David’s research has found that people will associate certain sounds with certain personalities. And how many of us have made a pre-meditated judgement about the person we are about to meet for the first time, based on their name alone?

Is this the most basic form of unconscious bias and if left unchecked. how can bias impact your team or organisation?

Certainly, this is not the only way in which a person can be unconsciously biased, but raising someone’s bias with them can be a tricky conversation to have and, as a result, isn't always addressed.

Here are 5 great ideas on how to discuss the sensitive topic of unconscious bias:

1: Sense-check & prepare

Are you fully educated with this bias and therefore in a position to raise this as an issue?  Are you sure you don’t exhibit this bias yourself?  Does the person you wish to have this conversation with, trust & respect you?   Are you ready to have a conversation which might get uncomfortable?

2: Intention

Start with the purpose of the conversation and assure them this comes from a supportive position.  Be prepared with examples of where you might have seen this bias in play.

3: Show empathy

Because unconscious bias operates on such a subconscious level, the person you are speaking with is unlikely to recognise that it is happening so this may be a shock to them, or they may even deny the bias, so it is important to listen to their responses and hold them accountable. We all like to think that we fully understand any prejudices that we have, and most people will try and combat them.  Giving the person time to digest what you are telling them is essential. 

4: Recognise when bias is most likely to take place

Bias becomes most prevalent when we are forced into making a quick decision or judgement. Rushing decisions forces us to fall back on our subconscious and the bias.  Helping the individual to recognise the situations where a quick decision is usually made will help the individual think critically about how they make that decision next time. This may of course mean they take longer to make decisions, but it will help to ensure they are being fair. 

5: Agree an action plan

Acknowledge this requires a behaviour change and may take time to adjust.  Suggest that you politely check in with them in the future if you suspect the bias is in play.   You can agree on a signal if that bias occurs when other people are present so that the individual can modify their decision or behaviour accordingly. 


Of course, it all begins by actually having the conversation. It’s about starting from a place of shared values, and understanding that bias is a human condition, rather than a character flaw.

To move forward, we need to learn to have those challenging conversations so that people aren’t worried about being perceived as biased, but are instead focused on knowing where the challenges might be.

Ultimately, it's a mind-set shift and skill building that we all need to do more of, as opposed to thinking, ‘Oh no. John's at it again, saying something inappropriate, but let's just ignore it.’ That’s not really helpful!


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