Unconscious bias is in the news regarding coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Reporters are being called out for statements such as “War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.”

“The way we report can engender compassion or it can lead to othering by reinforcing unconscious bias,” a recent article by the Poynter Institute says.

The same is true of the way we think and speak, and that has wide-ranging effects in business and the workplace. Recurring costs of workplace bias include disengagement and turnover; employees who feel compelled to hide the aspects of themselves that they value most; and staff and customers who feel misunderstood or disrespected.

Mike Noon, professor of human resource management at the University of London, defines unconscious bias as “learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal and able to influence behavior.” Yet the fact that it is unconscious and unintentional does not make it harmless.

Bias can create very stressful environments where employees struggle to feel emotionally safe. Employees who are consistently on the receiving end of biased assumptions are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged and leave as those who are not. Another study found bias creates customer service and public relations problems when biased assumptions interfere with delivering excellent service and maintaining brand image.

People have a hard time seeing their own unconscious biases because they are — by definition — blind spots. You don’t know what you don’t know, as the saying goes. But simply teaching employees about unconscious bias is not enough to make meaningful changes in the workplace environment or improve retention of diverse personnel, research demonstrates. What can make a difference is taking steps to increase cultural intelligence (CQ).

CQ is the ability to function and relate effectively in culturally diverse situations. It is part of what Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2” thinking. He defines this as “a slower, more deliberate response rather than the impulsive default of ‘System 1’ thinking.’”

Rather than relying on intuitive, unconscious or automatic ways of responding to situations, System 2 thinking involves being more conscious and deliberate in how we react so we can disrupt bias in the workplace. Some proven benefits of this approach include:

  • Increased creativity and innovation.
  • Multicultural effectiveness.
  • Decreased turnover rates.
  • Diverse talent hiring and
  • Staff and client loyalty.
  • Reduced lawsuits related to personnel complaints.
  • Increased membership and engagement in employee resources groups (ERGs).

So how can we learn to be more deliberate in our thinking and speaking? Here are four CQ capabilities to recognize and effectively manage bias:

  1.  CQ drive is the degree to which you are motivated to even think about unconscious bias and its impact personally and professionally. It drives you to manage bias in your everyday interactions and decisions, and to use System 2 thinking in your interactions with people of different cultures and backgrounds.
  2. CQ knowledge is your understanding of cultural differences, including the ability to identify bias in yourself and others. A person with high CQ Knowledge is less likely to act on assumptions that they have made about a particular person or group.
  3. CQ strategy is your ability to plan to consciously avoid speaking or acting out of bias. An individual displaying a high level of CQ Strategy checks and confirms what they believe they know prior to a multicultural interaction to minimize their chances of speaking or acting out of bias
  4. CQ action is your ability to adapt your behavior when you interact with people from different backgrounds.

To develop these skills, focus on the following strategies:

  • ResearchBecome informed. Learn as much as you can about unconscious bias and its potential impact on your colleagues, employees and organizational culture. One of my favorite resources is the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. In it, the renowned psychologist and Nobel Prize winner explains the two systems that drive the way we think.
  • Learn to recognize your own bias. Be open to receive feedback on how your biases may have impacted others around you, and be willing to make changes.
  • Implement ongoing and long-term unconscious bias training. Don’t bother utilizing unconscious bias trainings if you’re not interested in investing in them long-term. In order for your diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings to be effective, they cannot exist as a “one and done” effort within your organization. The most effective programs are continuous and provide many opportunities for learning, growth and sustained change
  • Develop skills, strategies and action plans to mitigate bias within your organization. Look at how you can standardize programs and procedures to decrease certain types of bias. CQ related skills such as metacognition (thinking about your thinking) and perspective-taking can be learned. Ensure that managers and leaders are educated, and that the talent selection process focuses on objective and quantifiable measures.
  • Continually measure and access incremental changes and progress. Use assessments before and after your training initiatives to measure and improve their effectiveness.

Strengthening cultural intelligence is the key to moving people from reacting unconsciously to taking a more intentional, inclusive approach. Doing so will benefit your employees and customers and make your organization a stronger, healthier place to work.