How Unconscious Bias Leads to Familiarity Blindness in the Workplace

Unconscious bias

What is the link between unconscious bias and familiarity blindness?

A friend shared with me, a few years ago, how blown away she was by the feedback she was getting from her new colleagues in the new organization she joined. She pointed to the fact that she received a lot of positive feedback which was in very short supply in the former organization. At some point, her colleagues only saw her flaws – year-in, year-out – and failed to see and/or appreciate her strengths.

I also remember another colleague who complained a lot about the fact that other colleagues, for years unending, gave the same area of development feedback. Coincidentally, he had been working consciously on this area of development but it just seemed as if other colleagues, including his line manager, were just not seeing any improvement.

He actually felt they “REFUSED” to see or acknowledge the little signs of progress he had been making.

According to the Harvard Business Review article titled 3 Ways to Make Less Biased Decisions, unconscious bias was simply defined as judgments and behaviors toward others that we’re not aware of.

I really like this HBR article definition, especially from the perspective of unawareness on our part. Our brain has a way of “putting things in boxes” for ease of dealing with them. In other words, once I box you in a compartment of my brain, that is where you remain until I consciously “unbox” and review, which doesn’t always happen.

Selective Attention Test

When you become so familiar with a concept, idea, person, challenge, situation, etc. name it, you fail to see changes that are happening around them. This is what I term familiarity blindness. Our unconscious bias sustained for a long time becomes more or less autonomous that we become blind to changes around the subject or individual as the case may be.

READ ALSO: 5 Effective Ways to Act on Feedback

So how does this play out in the workplace?

1. During Performance Appraisals

performance appraisal

A line manager could be giving his/her direct report the same rating based on a perceived area of development, which s/he had identified ab-initio. If a concerted effort was not put in place by both parties to make changes, but also measure/observe the developmental changes, the status quo impression usually remains.

READ ALSO: 5 Effective Ways to Act on Feedback

2. During people development discussions

people development
Image from Unsplash by Kaleidico

In hindsight, after reflecting on some people development discussions I have had in the past to determine candidates to select as talents, I realized that sometimes, we just couldn’t see beyond some candidate’s weaknesses. Potentially this reduces the chances of designating them as talents.

I now realize that when we have not paid close attention to efforts and improvements colleagues are making regarding their areas of development, we have the tendency to just do a mental data recall from where we have already “boxed” them in our subconscious.

My learning here is to show genuine interest in people to appreciate how well they are leveraging their strengths and the improvements they are making in their areas of development. If we don’t do the latter, we develop familiarity blindness.

READ ALSO: Wondering How to Make your Decision Making Rock? Read this!

3. Team Roles Selection

team roles
Image from Unsplash

Again, the tendency here is to leverage people’s strengths to determine the kind of team roles they can play successfully. This is actually a good practice so the team can adequately complement one another and be strong as a team.

I am naturally an introverted person but after years of self-development, I have become very good at relating and connecting easily with people that sometimes people doubt that I am a natural introvert.

For those who knew me as predominantly introverted, they keep me in that “box” especially when they have not observed over time the changes I have made.

The learning here is to be conscious of developmental areas that have metamorphosized into strengths over time

In conclusion, I will liken familiarity blindness to the experience of learning how to drive. When you get started, you are consciously incompetent hence you notice every single action you take and details of things around you, especially along the road.

You eventually get to the point where you are unconsciously competent. Here your driving has become more or less second nature and seamless. However, you tend to notice changes around your environment less than when you were a beginner. It will require extra effort to notice them.

When we have unconscious biases, we might develop familiarity blindness if we do not make extra efforts to see changes.

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