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  • Writer's pictureRonald van Aggelen

How to break unconscious biases

The two of us are sitting in a cozy cafe. Trendy as I am, I order an espresso for my wife and a cappuccino for myself using the QR code taped to the table. Faster than light can travel, a friendly young man appears at the table and hands the espresso to me and the cappuccino to my wife. A good example of unconscious bias, or the deeply rooted beliefs in us that belong to our values ​​and norms. We unconsciously link these to images: Beer and wine represent man and woman, as do steak and salad.

Unconscious biases

We do not only see this in hospitality. In our work and private lives we also run into unconscious biases. It also happens to the female professional footballer who plays internationally at the highest level, the wheelchair user who wins gold medals worldwide and the Romanian cleaning lady who is actually a gynaecologist. But even in simple situations our prejudice and the associated behavior are confrontational. When you see someone who has tattoos from top to bottom, your first association is not that that person is a top consultant at an international accounting firm.

Unconscious bias is controlled by our brain

In discussions about diversity and inclusion, I often encounter these biases in my work as a management consultant. It always plays a role unconsciously. Sometimes it can be a funny situation, but often it is a persistent condemnation. As humans, we are used to trusting the first information we see or receive. People tend to categorize and organize the world around them. We do this every day, because it makes processing information easy for our brain. We see people as male or female, white or black, young or old.

Socially categorizing people you meet can be useful because it is easier on your brain, but you can also learn to break through your brain's unconscious bias.

Test your unconscious bias and dare to ask

To get out of the situation of judgments and prejudices you have to have courage. You must dare to communicate about your assessment and your judgment. Without immediately drawing conclusions. Even in the most obvious situations, where a little humor always helps. Someone from the wait staff who makes a joke about serving the steak and salad removes a potential assumption: “I assume the steak is for the lady…?” A more challenging situation is when the applicant, who is covered in tattoos, has to work as a consultant. A very difficult situation for a baby boomer with traditional norms and values. Here too you can only find out if you open it up: Gosh, tattoos... not so much my choice, I have to get used to the idea. Can you tell me more about it?

Stay curious

Breaking free from judgments and prejudices is a very difficult task, but it is possible. Knowledge is the medicine. The more knowledge we have and the more curious we are, the better we are able to apply nuances. Always provide a reality check and challenge yourself: take the time to consider which (pre)judgments you use, where they come from and, above all, how you can look at things in a different way. The simplest tip is to formulate positive thoughts about stereotypes: The yoga man has a healthy body, the trans woman has a beautiful voice and the street bum helps sick dogs.

Don't let unconscious bias determine your behavior

Whether I like it or not, I still have unconscious biases on a regular basis. In that respect I am just like a human being, but I never let it dictate my behavior. The work of stand-up comedians is often filled with bias. However, great to have a good laugh, but don't let it define your professionalism and ethics in your work.

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