4 ways to avoid unconscious bias and situational blindness

Dan Gregory @DanGregoryCo

Most of what we believe, even with conviction and assuredness, may possibly be completely mistaken or, at least, fundamentally flawed as a result of unconscious bias and situational blindness.

Now, that is quite a statement, but it bears thinking about and indeed reviewing with the cold and emotionless detachment of an independently appointed statistician.

This can be a particularly important consideration; partly because such blindness can have a catastrophic effect on our businesses, our personal lives, in our communities and in our relationships:

• Situational (or contextual) blindness can rob us of opportunities and possibilities to innovate, to grow, to connect and to build and expand

• Unconscious bias can build unnecessary walls and frictions within our relationships and communications with our team, our customers or clients and within our communities and partnerships

• Ingrained prejudices expose us to risks, both reputational and financial, and can cloud our judgment and set our processes up for failure 

• And narrow mindedness, an intolerance of dissent or even a resistance to respectful questioning, can cost us dearly in economic terms as well as in our own performance and team engagement.

The other way unconscious bias might be detrimental, is that, by definition, we are unconscious and perhaps even resistant in our relationship to them. And where there is a lack of awareness, by omission or design, there is risk.

Consider what most of us tend to think of as our most important beliefs – our moral code or religious values.

Now this is not to question your personal beliefs, nor is it an argument for or against any particular religious or non-religious doctrine. So please relax, this post is not written to decry beliefs but rather to broaden situational awareness and in doing so, aid you in amplifying your influence and alertness.

So for now, let’s look at belief more broadly as a concept:

Firstly, no matter what your religious belief (which, again, is entirely your business), you will fall into a demographic statistic – a proportion of the human population.

For instance, roughly one third of the world’s population identifies as Christian, about another third call themselves Muslim and the rest of the religious population, plus those who are atheist or agnostic, make up the final third.

Additionally, all of these belief systems are essentially mutually exclusive – in other words, you can’t be both Muslim andBuddhist or Christian andatheist for example.

What this means is, regardless of what you believe, in terms of statistical probability, there is an approximately 65-67% chance (now brace yourself)… that you are wrong. That allor anyof us are wrong!

(Again, I’m not suggesting that you definitely arewrong, I’m simply doing the math… so deep breaths everyone.)

Simply put, this raw data, and the resulting statistical spread, necessarily point to the fact that, according to impartial probability, you, and indeed all of us, are highly likely to be incorrect. (Remember, not saying you are… just probably… OK. I think we got away with that…phew!)

Now, all of the above assumes that each of these groups is homogenous within itself – that one portion of the world’s Christians and Muslims (or the other less populous religions) do not fundamentally believe that the other denominations within their own number are in fact heretics who have misinterpreted the word of their god or gods. Of course, this is an erroneous assumption.

We know, for instance, that Sunnis & Shiers and Catholics & Protestants, and the divisions within many or most of the other thousands of religions around the planet from Judaism to Hinduism, often refer to each other with open skepticism or even thinly veiled hostility. And this is within their own particular belief system – outside of these cohorts, conflict likely increases.

So, even within a particular belief, homogeny is not assured. This means the chances of you, or I, making the correct choice are diminished even further. In fact, the statistical probability that you and I are wrong (not saying you are… breathe… breathe…) is actually higher, and indeed much higher, that the 65-67% I mentioned earlier.

Now, I wonder if I were to ask you to cross the road, assuming a less than 30% statistical probability of making it to the other side, if you would step up to the curb? Of course, that is precisely the statistic probability we all face in terms of making it to "the other side".

So here we are - the entire world’s population has a greater than average chance of being wrong (and possibly completely wrong) about the singular belief that they hold to be the most important in terms of informing their morality and codes of behavior.


Two things to note before we move on:

Clearly, I’ve chosen a provocative illustration to make my point. I’ve done this precisely because whatever discomfort you may have felt whilst reading the preceding paragraphs should alert you to how instinctively and passionately we feel the need to defend our long held and unquestioned beliefs.

Importantly, it must also be stated that statistics are not facts – they can only point to probabilities and tendencies. However, the underlying lesson here is that, though we might feel a personal certainty about our beliefs, we may still be arguing against the numbers.

Of course, this pattern of entrenched beliefs plays out in every area of our lives, from business to politics and even within our families and social relationships.

We have our own unconscious biases toward particular personality types, with regard to particular skills sets, methodologies and processes. Our prejudices and intolerances drive us every minute of every day, and yet we tend to assume that we are mostly acting out of clinical and logical decision-making using emotionally intelligent judgment.

This, it turns out, is a bit of a problem.

Which is not to say that we should abandon our belief systems - rather that we might approach the various situations we encounter in life with a little more humility, curiosity and open mindedness.

Moreover, it is in our interest to actively seek cognitive diversity in our teams, reading, research and social interactions – those who can respectfully challenge us and help us to see the world from points of view other than our own or of those who see from similar positions to our own.

Often, The Impossible Institute will work with an organization and be asked to conduct a “Cultural Audit”. Part of this often includes a measurement of Collaborative Intelligence (or We-Q™) - which is informed by the diversity of the skills sets and thinking styles within the team. We do this because, we believe, Team Geniusis a better outcome than the “overly harmonious” homogeny of the alternative.

What we often find through this process, is most organizations’ and business’ default position is a “check box” view of diversity along lines of gender, ethnicity and sexuality (all of which are incredibly important). However, a diversity of thinking styles is often overlooked.

For example, a leader might surround themselves with a male or female version of themselves, or an Indian, Chinese, Italian, English, American, Australian, German or South African version of themselves. This means that we’re still likely to be having the same conversations and reaching the same, predictable conclusions, just in different accents and inflections.

This leaves us vulnerable to falling in love with our own opinions whilst calling them due diligence.

So how do we avoid falling victim to unconscious bias and situational blindness when, by definition, we’re blind to them?

1. Firstly, be diligent in seeking alternative points of view

Often, it is those we consider “irritating”, those who push our personal buttons and whose counsel we resist who can offer us the most value.

This is not to say that we submit to contrary opinions or that we deny our own intuition, simply that all growth requires a measure of resistance.

2. Be a little suspicious of too much agreement

Harmony can be a good thing, even desirous. Too much can become a problem.

If comfort is sort at the expense of truth and critical intelligence, we run the risk of creating a culture that is unaware of its environment and insulated against present dangers.

3. Question first principles 

Long established processes are not always indicative of correctness or usefulness.

Too often we hold on to outdated processes and systems simply because there is a sense of “rightness” associated with past precedent that may in fact be irrelevant in current circumstances.

4. Be more attached to results than your own sense of rightness

Leadership of any kind demands that our focus should be more on outcomes than on our own preferences or comfort levels.

Leadership actually demands a greater sense of humility and self awareness than does followership.

In the end, this is simply an invitation to all of us to raise our collective awareness to possibilities, relationships, risks and results that may lie just beyond the limits of our beliefs.

Of course, this might just be one of my beliefs, and statistically, that’s a problem too!