Unconscious Bias as a Tool in Negotiations

Stereotypes can be formed through a combination of our own personal experiences and experiences that we have heard about or been exposed to. Whilst they’re a part of human nature, these stereotypes can also be dangerous. They can make us judge people or organizations prematurely without conscious thought – something termed unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is defined as the stereotypes or attitudes that are unconsciously attributed to a person or entity (such as an organization or group) affecting how we engage, interact or understand them. The concept of unconscious bias results in changes in the way that we behave towards them – either in a positive or a negative manner. This can range across all elements of a business, including candidates in a job interview, clients, suppliers or partners.

There has been a lot of work done over the past few years to increase diversity and inclusion, but harmful stereotypes are still an issue. Whether it be due to race, class, mobility or health, we all judge people all of the time, making it a hard issue to completely eliminate.

The Causes of Unconscious Bias

There are a number of external influences that can build someone’s unconscious bias for or against something or someone. These include:

Culture – Refers to the attitudes and practises that surround people as they grow up. Culture can play a huge role in the way that we feel about others, including installing prejudices and biases in a person.

Generalizations – Generalizing is a way that our brain attempts to group and understand things. The process of generalization helps our brain to compartmentalize and create shortcuts to avoid overthinking. However, when it comes to generalizing people, it can be harmful.

Belonging – Scientific research shows that as children, we look to belong to a group, often of people with similar attributes to us. It’s important for parents to teach children that being different does not mean that someone is bad (and vice versa), to enable them to look at the world without prejudice or negative bias.

Media – The truth is that all media is biased. In fact, almost anything that is reported involves bias because we’re all human. In a world where we spend much of our time engaging with media of all sorts, we are prey to the bias that the media portrays. It’s essential that we’re aware of this and look to understand the bias that is presented before absorbing it.

Unconscious Bias as a Bargaining Tool

Although unconscious bias is generally seen as a negative in society, it can also be used as a tool when it comes to negotiations. With knowledge of the biases of the person that you’re negotiating with, you can use this as a tool to help you to come to a deal. It enables you to put forward ideas and arguments that will resonate with your counterpart and help you to come to an agreement on the issue at hand.

With a little knowledge of your counterpart, you can use unconscious bias as a tool to help your negotiation, perhaps you have a hobby in common, come from the same place, or support the same football team, for example. This could make the difference between making a deal, and not making one.

Eradicating Unconscious Bias in Business

When it comes to making deals and reducing the influence of unconscious bias in business, we are seeing a rise in the popularity of RFP (request for proposal). This means acquiring a partner, client, or supplier through bidding. In the case of RFP, the procurer does not meet the bidder, and therefore, the process is without risk of unconscious bias (in theory). However, in my opinion, this dehumanizes the whole process.

Although this is the theory, it’s not necessarily the case. Throughout a bidding process, questions may be asked – where the organization is based, or previous clients that they’ve worked with. With this information, unconscious bias can rear its head again.

Regardless of the process, it’s likely that unconscious bias will always occur in one way or another. By being aware of it, we can minimize and rail against the harmful aspects, while using harmless preferences to our advantage.


  • Stephen White

    Since 2001 Stephen White has been managing partner of Scotwork UK LLP. He also leads global sales initiatives for the Scotwork network and acts as senior project manager for complex client assignments.

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