The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The ongoing conversation about race relations highlights the need to address unconscious bias as an important part of both the issue and the solution.

Unconscious bias, also referred to as implicit bias, is the brain’s automatic response to a person, event, or situation. It’s why you automatically stop when you see a red light or close your eyes when a ball is about to hit you in the face. It is a preconceived reaction that bypasses the cognitive part of the brain.

Scientists estimate that just 5 percent of our brain’s activity is conscious. Unconscious responses are mostly learned or socialized over time based on each individual’s experiences. For example, if a shark is always depicted as a dangerous killer in movies such as Jaws then people become afraid of sharks. Yet, in 2010, sharks killed three humans, representing one in 17 million surfers and one in 738 million swimmers. You are 75 times more likely to be killed by lightening than by a shark.

But preconceived notions shape our views. You may assume that your coworker who has a physical disability cannot do certain things; but if you actually speak to them you may find that they can do everything—they just approach it differently than you.

The word bias is often associated with unfair treatment or prejudice, but unconscious bias isn’t always bad; there is positive bias, too. Bias is natural and everyone has it. We need it to survive. When faced with an urgent situation, your reaction needs to be instantaneous. There’s no time to consciously think and analyze. If we had to consciously think about everything before taking action, we would barely have time to leave the house every day.

Leaders and managers, though, must resist making quick decisions based on their automatic unconscious bias when the decision has important implications. Without proper information, decisions can negatively impact business or the career of oneself or others.

Some common workplace examples in Japan include:

When choosing someone to send on an important out-of-town business trip, a leader overlooks a manager who is a working mother without asking if she could go. Instead, they give the assignment to someone who appears to have a more flexible schedule. The manager misses an opportunity for an important experience, potentially impacting her career progression.

A group leader ignores a new revenue idea submitted by a mid-career hire, thinking they do not know the company well and therefore their idea cannot be good. This causes the employee to feel unappreciated and demotivated, and the company misses a potentially beneficial business idea.

With the things we say and do being controlled by the 95 percent of our brain that operates on an unconscious level, managing bias when important decisions about co-workers, clients, suppliers, and others are made takes time and effort.

To make a change we must learn to identify bias and use techniques to manage it. Stopgap measures must be built into processes and systems to minimize the impact of bias. This not only has people benefits, but can lead to business opportunities and better decisions.

2016 Chubu Walkathon

Organized jointly by the ACCJ Chubu Chapter and Nagoya International School, the Walkathon brings together the international and Japanese communities. Through the “25 in 25” initiative, the 2016 Walkathon raised over 25 million yen for charity.

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Nancy Ngou is ACCJ treasurer and partner at Ernst & Young Advisory Co., Ltd. where she leads the Organizational Culture Transformation practice, helping companies with diversity, inclusion, globalization, and other culture transformations.
To make a change we must learn to identify bias and use techniques to manage it.