Reduce unconscious bias with mindfulness

Mindfulness & unconscious bias

Victoria Dale is a consultant at EW Group and specialises in organisation development and diversity. In this guide, she explores what mindfulness is and how it can help to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace.

When we’re under pressure – whether it’s due to major life changes, tight deadlines or conflicts – we tend to make snap decisions. We act without acknowledging how we feel, meaning our stress, tiredness and past experiences can come to the fore and allow the latent unconscious biases (also known as implicit biases) within our minds to influence our actions. These are often based on incorrect, negative stereotypes, and can seriously harm the effectiveness of your organisation and the diversity strategies it puts in place to build an inclusive culture.

As more of us read up on mental health and participate in wellbeing awareness workshops, there is a growing movement recognising the benefits that mental health practices bring not only to employee wellbeing, but also the lessening of bias at work.

Unconscious bias training is effective in helping us stop and think before we act on our biases and learn how to question our thoughts to prevent discrimination in the workplace. Once we have been shown how to overcome unconscious bias, there are other approaches we can employ to help us manage our thoughts and biases on an ongoing basis. One of the most promising of these is mindfulness, which is seen as an excellent addition to reducing types of unconscious bias impacting many organisations. When used across workplaces, it can offer a great range of benefits.

Studies show mindfulness can help reduce our own unconscious bias

With the growth of the wellness industry and the ‘always on’ working culture, mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular. There are various definitions of mindfulness, but put simply, it involves focusing one’s mind on the present, how we feel, what we’re doing and how we respond to stimuli.

With its growing profile, employers are increasingly recognising the importance of mindfulness in promoting positive staff wellbeing and improved productivity. Science agrees – mindfulness has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, and to improve sleep qualitycognition, and staff productivity and wellbeing.

Importantly though, studies suggest that mindfulness can help reduce our unconscious bias towards others. It can make us more aware of our feelings and prejudices, thereby thinking more rationally and clearly before we react. A 2014 study by social Researchers at Central Michigan University revealed that a group who listened to a 10-minute mindfulness exercise exhibited less bias in regards to race and age based on their implicit association test (IAT) results than those who didn’t follow the mindfulness exercise.

In 2016, the same researchers found that brief mindfulness exercises also reduced discriminatory behaviour, findings that mirrored a 2014 study by Kent, Surrey and Sheffield University researchers that found short loving-kindness meditation exercises reduced intergroup anxiety and improved positive feelings towards homeless people, both present and future.

Mindfulness has also been shown to reduce correspondence bias – bias that makes us see individuals’ actions as reflective of their innate character traits, as opposed to external factors – while other studies have shown a link between mindfulness and a reduction in negativity bias, which can cause us to avoid situations in which we might experience feelings of rejection.

All these proven effects are due to mindfulness helping us to slow down, pause, and focus on our thoughts and feelings. By becoming more self-aware, we can then make intentional choices about how we want to respond to difficult situations, rather than jumping to conclusions and automatically reacting in ways that we may later regret.

How to use mindfulness to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace

We’ve talked a lot about the many benefits of mindfulness and the need to pair it with unconscious bias training, but what can you do in the workplace to practice it?

Being mindful doesn’t require sitting in a darkened room meditating for 10 minutes. There are simple ways we can practice mindfulness in the workplace. Together, they can help support a more inclusive working culture and promote inclusive behaviours:

  • Focus on a single task at a time instead of multi-tasking. This means you’re more likely to give something or someone your full attention, rather than rushing.
  • Turn off or silence any distractions such as emails, tablets and mobiles when in a meeting or having an important conversation with colleagues. Focus on what they’re saying, be aware of your own biases and take time to decide how you will react before responding to them.
  • Allow yourself breaks to practice being mindful. Get some fresh air, stretch or move around the office.
  • When you begin to feel stressed or agitated, practice a simple meditation technique that focuses on your breathing. Slowly breathe in and out for a minute, concentrating on how you’re sitting, your rate of breathing and your senses in general. This will allow you to ground yourself and slow down your mind.

Discover other great habits you can adopt to boost mindfulness, energy and productivity, in our working from home guide.

Mindfulness is a great component in your wider mission seeking to eradicate unconscious bias in your organisation. It goes hand in hand with unconscious bias training as it will encourage your teams to pause and reflect on their thoughts, after they learn exactly why this is critical for building an inclusive culture. It also promotes positive wellbeing practices at work as more of us see the need for our employers to vouch for our mental and physical health.

Learn more about unconscious bias or explore how EW Group can help your business become more equal, diverse and successful through unconscious bias training. Our consultants will embed our expertise and knowledge of unconscious bias into the core of your ongoing diversity and inclusion journey.

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