The Hidden Cost of Unconscious Bias

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

We all know there is a high cost for bias in the workplace. Some of those costs are obvious: managers fail to hire valuable employees, the target of the bias is deprived of career opportunities, and the organization is at risk of legal ramifications.hidden-costs1

Those are the costs that show – they are extreme and they have a major impact on the success of your team and your workplace. That’s the bad news. Well, here’s more bad news. Beyond – or, I should say, beneath — the obvious lies another cost that’s harder to spot, and, therefore, less apt to motivate us to action.

That cost is the fact that, when a bias (“an inflexible belief about a particular category of people”) is visible in an environment, those who are objects of the bias are at risk of becoming fearful of validating that inflexible belief through their behavior. Claude Steel of Stanford University calls this phenomenon the “Stereotype Threat.”

Take, for example, what I hope is now an extinct bias that reads, “All blonds are dumb.” Think about it for a moment. If you are a woman who fits into this demographic category (like myself), how might you react to the presence of this bias? One option is, that you will work harder to make sure you excel, are always on top of things, and appear, well, just plain smart.

Ideally, that’s what we would do, but let’s get realistic. It is tiring, frustrating, and anxiety-provoking to always have to be at our best. In fact, few of us are. There are days when we didn’t get enough sleep, don’t feel well, or are quite simply having a bad day. What do we do then?

It’s at that point and on those days that the Stereotype Threat just might kick in. Because the blond knows that at least some of her colleagues look at her – because of the group to which she belongs – as not that smart, she becomes concerned that if she speaks up, she just might, on that occasion, prove them right and, thereby, perpetuate the bias.

The “dumb blond” bias is (I hope) an outdated example, but the principle applies to all groups about whom others have an inflexible belief. The original Stanford research focused on school performance – specifically on women’s ability to perform difficult math problems – but it applies across the board. Might, for example, a white male hesitate to make a statement about diversity/inclusion issues if there is a prevailing bias that his group is sexist? Might a Baby Boomer hold back an idea related to technology for fear of reinforcing the bias that older employees lack technological skill?

I hope I don’t need to state the obvious that every time an idea is suppressed out of fear of perpetuating a bias, we are at risk of missing out on that one thought, that one angle, that one direction that just might have moved our organization forward. And that, dear colleagues, is just too high a price to pay.

© copyright 2016 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
Feel free to reprint or re-post as long as copyright and website information ( are attached.


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