How to Better Your Workplace By Breaking Through Unconscious Biases

Did you know that every single person on this planet has unconscious biases towards others? Race, gender, and age have dominated conversations about diversity in the workplace for decades, and I genuinely believe we have not been dealing with the root cause or source of the issue at hand. It starts with your thinking and the way we process information consciously and unconsciously.   

Our beliefs, attitude, values, and way of thinking all stem back to when we were small children. Our belief system starts to form as early as the age of five, and, for the most part, it operates unconsciously until we are mature enough to start making conscious choices about what we choose to believe on our own. Depending on what you have been exposed to in your life, your belief system has served as the foundation of your beliefs and values that drive your present thinking and behavior.

I am not talking about racism in its traditional sense. I am attempting to take this dialogue to a much deeper level and explore how cognitive awareness can positively impact diversity and inclusion and support dissolving conscious and unconscious biases.     

Being cognitively self-aware is the first step

Hear me out on this. We all have preferred ways of thinking and processing information, and we all have unconscious biases. Depending on what you have been exposed to throughout your life, these thought processes will shape those preferences. And guess what? Your preferences can change with conscious effort and focus – that is the positive upside in me sharing this information. We can change if we are open to change. It starts by understanding yourself first.  

What are the core beliefs and values that shape your thinking and behavior? Once you are clear on that, you can take it to the next stage and explore how you prefer to think and behave based on your DNA and life experiences. 

I have been self-reflecting a lot over the past few weeks to think about my own values, beliefs, my thinking, and my own behavior. I can only pray that I have modelled the right behaviors for others to follow. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to be honest with myself and remind myself that we all have unconscious biases. I uncovered this learning through the work I do with Emergenetics International which started a few years back. 

I am a certified, trained and licensed facilitator for Emergenetics and we have a psychometric tool that helps us not only better understand ourselves, but it helps us better understand how to address unconscious biases and create high-performing teams based on cognitive diversity and inclusion. I asked myself, ‘Am I having the right conversations to help step up and be part of the solution of overcoming unconscious biases and create workplace cultures based on cognitive diversity and inclusion?’

The answer to that is that I have not consistently been advocating the importance of it, nor have I been using the resources that I have at my fingertips to be part of driving the positive change that the corporate world and our real world needs. I am guilty of not doing enough, so the time is now. I stand firm in my position to help as many leaders as possible overcome their unconscious biases and make our companies and the world a better place to work and live. 

What is cognitive diversity?

Cognitive diversity is the differences in opinions, world views, beliefs, and ways of thinking. Unconscious biases are defined as learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal. Naturally, they influence our behavior.   

As human beings, we all have unconscious biases, and the most common one I observe and hear about from the people I work with, is what I would call “similarity” or “commonality” biases. Let me play this out by using a real-life example that I see happening en masse in today’s workplace and in our personal relationships. 

I often hear from some of the leaders I work with about how hard it is to connect with certain people. They may appear to have nothing in common or their perceived view is that they have very little in common based on what they know about the other person. When we have difficulty finding common ground, it makes it uncomfortable for people as it is human nature to feel comfortable around other people who are like us. This propensity to be comfortable with "those like us" goes beyond race, gender, age, social status etc. When we do not see the world through the same or similar lenses as another human being, it can create a level of disconnect.     

Human nature indicates that we tend to like people who are like us. Really think about that. I want you to take that away and reflect on it. As you do, you will start to realize that is much easier to be around people who share your common values, beliefs, and perspectives. I will challenge your thinking and say that being comfortable with that is not leadership; it is just easier, and it does not foster diversity, innovation, and inclusivity. True authentic, inspiring leadership is about accepting and embracing people for who they are and by valuing their perspective even though it might be different than yours. 

Why is cognitive diversity important? 

First and foremost, the acceptance and openness to the concept of cognitive diversity allows us to deal with unconscious biases head on. Just being willing to recognize and appreciate that it is okay that we do not all think the same way is the right place to start. Secondly, having a variety of thinking and perspectives is critical for fostering innovation. If we all thought the same way, that would leave little room for diversity of thought and creativity.  

Research shows that cognitive diversity can enhance team innovation by up to 20 percent, and it can reduce risks taken by up to 30 percent. Diverse teams are also capable of resolving problems faster than teams that lack diversity, even though it may not feel as comfortable. The bottom line is this – teams with diversity of thought will outperform teams that are not as diverse. 

Cognitive diversity is a powerful way to combat unconscious biases and tackle diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in our everyday lives.

Here are a few other positive advantages: 

  • It naturally builds and encourages diversity in the workplace and in life where everyone feels included and part of common goal or shared vision
  • It creates a sense of comfort and safety for people to be authentic, and that is a key driver behind creating a high-performance culture and environment. It is also how we help others feel safe and confident about just being themselves.
  • It deals with prejudices head on and uses language that is positive and encourages acceptance of diversity and inclusivity by valuing different perspectives.

What is your company doing about cognitive diversity in your workplace? I would wager that for some of you, this is the first time you are reading about the concept of “cognitive” diversity which is a growing trend in the field of neuroscience. There are very few organizations that have adopted the language and concept. Most companies and executives default to the traditional aspects of diversity and inclusion based on race, gender and age. That is wonderful. Keep up the good work, but let’s deal with the root cause that creates the initial barriers, which starts with your thinking.

More Tips and Advice on Cognitive Diversity and Unconscious Biases

What are your thoughts about unconscious biases? Are you familiar with the concept of cognitive diversity and are you building a culture that values it? This is a very personal and important topic so feel free to reach out to me directly, I would love to chat with you in more detail. Call me at 1.855.871.3374 or email me at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca

I am determined to do more, be more and share my passion for creating more conscious and cognitively diverse leaders so please reach out. Staying silent and ignoring that it exists only exacerbates the problem. We need to stand together on valuing and supporting cognitive diversity and inclusion. 


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