Beyond optical illusions: Turning Unconscious Bias learning into practical behavioural change

One of the success factors of Unconscious Bias is that almost everyone has eye-opening moments, e.g. from optical illusions or online tests. A lot of the learning relates to neuroscience and shows how our brains work. But how strong is the linkage to D&I and how concrete are the practical takeaways?

Our audiences in D&I learning programmes love the eye-opening moments that are created by ambiguous images (e.g. reversible profiles and vase by Edgar Rubin), illusory contours (e.g. Kanizsa triangle) or the checker shadow illusion (by Edward H. Adelson). The fundamental learning includes insight about how strong our own background influences the way we see, interpret and evaluation the things we see. It also drives home core messages about the value of different perspectives and of taking a pause in our information processing to explore other views so that our combined results will be much better than what each one of us could have achieved.

More structured tools, such as the IAT, provide additional insight about, e.g., established connections that make it a lot easier for human beings to think within patterns that were fostered in the course of our lives rather than to explore individual situations. This form of bias relates to many talent decisions and contributes to explaining some of the discrepancies that companies discover by datamining their HR systems. In fact, a vast body of research in the neuroscience field has, over the past ten years, introduced both new quality and new momentum to the work on D&I.

The new insight, however, has not always been connected to or integrated with earlier findings. The following paragraph below provides an overview in this regard. On the other hand, the level to which people are supported in transferring new learning about Unconscious Biases into practical behavioural change varies greatly depending on context. In the meantime, an increasing number of research projects tackle the question if and when unconscious bias awareness or feedback leads to bias-reduction or mitigation activities. The last sections of this article tackles putting Unconscious Bias into practical behaviour.

A wider and deeper understanding of Unconscious Biases

For managers of all levels, knowing the concept of Unconscious Bias is critical to develop quality in people leadership. All inter-personal dynamics are in some way affected by personal preferences, perspectives or patterns. Unconscious Bias provides a comprehensive learning framework to explore and understand the influences, including helpful or unwanted effects thereof. In order to facilitate such learning, a modelled approach has proven to be most effective when working with top and senior managers. European Diversity Research & Consulting has, over 15 years, followed closely the landscape of research and practice in D&I. As for other key areas of D&I, they created a didactical model for Unconscious Biases that incorporates many relevant elements from different research disciplines. This includes social psychology, audits or evaluations of HR processes and corporate cultural research. The researchers are using three categories to present six forms of Unconscious Biases. The model also allows to explore cross-fertilisation of different forms of bias or discuss dynamics on personal, process or cultural levels. Feedback from workshop participants praises the systematic and evidence-based presentation of Unconscious Biases that connects many topics with each other and hence avoids fragmentation or even irritation. For a longer article about the Unconscious Bias model, send an email to

Supporting managers to transfer Unconscious Bias learning to concrete actions

One theory suggests that strong (self) awareness about a topic will lead to related changes in behaviour. For Unconscious Biases, research shows that the effect is often not so immediate and in fact may be reverse (c.f. Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015). Two approaches have proven to be particularly effective in supporting managers to understand what they could and should (want to) do differently as a response to new information and insight they gain about various forms of Unconscious Biases.

First, it has been particularly helpful to systematically look at different forms of Unconscious Biases to understand their very nature – including the underlying purpose why humans have developed them. As a next step, you will want to explore their implications (in which business and leadership contexts they occur) including wanted and unintentional effects the respective bias may have. This will enable the audience to identify moments or checkpoints in these situations where they can built in new elements to let the bias surface and/or to mitigate the unwanted impact it could have. This methodology works equally well for personal/individual biases, biases that show up in HR or leadership processes and biases that are embedded in the corporate culture.

Another approach to effectively develop follow-up activities from Unconscious Bias learning is the work with existing leadership frameworks. In probably every tool large companies are providing for their leaders, there will be elements that can serve a purpose in reducing bias or the effects thereof. Feedback procedures, objective-setting frameworks, leadership competency models or collaboration tools – they all offer ample opportunities for leaders to plan out specific – often small things – they can change in order to practically apply their learning around Unconscious Biases.

Mitigating Unconscious Biases: How to avoid inherent pitfalls

Some authors suggest that mitigating biases might require to do the opposite of what the bias itself promotes: Pausing instead of jumping to conclusion, immersing yourself in discomfort while the deeper preference is for comfort, making extra efforts while the brain (and the body) is lazy and people are under time pressure. It is obvious that starting to do things so dramatically different may not be an easy solution for many and in most situations. At the same time, some of the unconscious biases will continue to operate precisely because they are un- or subconscious and/or because of their implicit (almost automatic) nature. In addition, it is not always easy for people to recognise when they are using (or creating!) so-called rational reasons or excuses why a certain activity – that would mitigate or contribute to reducing bias – is not possible, appropriate or effective. These types of reasons often show forms of bias that are not directly related to D&I or people (e.g. availability bias for information, biased risk perception etc.).

The combination of dynamics mentioned in this paragraph also serve as an explanation to questions from committed managers: why many patterns around bias persist even when they were discussed, reflected and composed over series of events and through informational tools. Experience shows that avoiding these pitfalls and the rollback can best be achieved when the tips from the section above are followed: (1) A systematic look at different forms of biases, where they occur and how they can be mitigated in theses context combined with (2) an integration of bias reduction activities in leadership models or people management tools.

Meanwhile: Don’t forget the Conscious Biases

While a large part of the discussion focuses on un- or subconscious processes it should not be forgotten that some forms of bias actually include conscious elements. Many implicit associations, for example, are nurtured by stereotypes that are perpetuated in the media, in society but also in the workplace. Unwritten rules in the corporate culture are another example: They are often fostered by formal restrictions that are, in turn, based on selective or sometimes false facts. Many of these mechanisms are results of conscious decisions or priorities that companies set, often related to their business model or to the industry they operate in.

The same happens for us as humans: We often take decisions that are based on personal preference or convictions. And our way to set priorities typically reflects our individual goals and objectives. In many of these steps, we include assumptions about how people are or should be, or about how communication and collaboration should enrol. While they are not necessarily conscious in terms of outspoken, they might easily surface when the first “why” question occurs.

The conscious biases that are reflected by or embedded in a number of organisational processes or personal behaviours often serve important purposes, including coherence, profiling or selection. These purposes should be reflected upon along with unintended or unwanted effects that biases may result in. The work on Unconscious Biases does not aim at overthrowing all the principles and guidelines that were developed over a longer period of time. It will, however, lead a recurring reflection of many of the decisions – and underlying assumptions – that are happening in a fast moving, globalised business landscape. To that end, it also contributes to making organisations better prepared for the years to come.