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Unconscious Bias, Implicit Bias, and Microaggressions: What Can We Do about Them?

Artika R Tyner


  • Today’s diversity and inclusion work requires intentional action.
  • Leadership must rethink inclusion in law firms and bar associations and evidence this by defining diversity, equity, inclusion goals, policies, and practices.
  • The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias and provides a few key observations about how these biases operate.
  • Microaggressions can negatively impact team dynamics and have a detrimental impact on customers and clients.
Unconscious Bias, Implicit Bias, and Microaggressions: What Can We Do about Them?
Wong Yu Liang via Getty Images

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Effective leaders build organizational cultures where employees can thrive, customers/clients experience excellence in service, and contributions can be made to the betterment of society. Because leadership is manifested through the active pursuit of learning, leaders typically pursue these goals by attending seminars, enlisting the support of a coach, and reading the latest books. However, an often-missing piece of one’s leadership development is the cultivation of the skills needed to advance the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is a dearth of research on this topic and limited examples of evidence-based practices.

By default, diversity and inclusion have been made into a buzzwords and catchy slogans. They are viewed as being only in the purview of a “Diversity and Inclusion Committee” and the responsibility of the “Chief Diversity Officer.” In fact, today’s diversity and inclusion work requires organizational mission alignment, clear vision integration, strategic planning, commitment, accountability, and resource allocation that involves the entire team. The key leader of each respective organization, however, remains the main conductor on this journey. This is of critical importance because this work should be integrated throughout the entire organization, from human resources to client management.

Diversity tends to be defined simply as a conglomeration of people from different backgrounds. Or it is a declaration manifested by stating “you are welcome” through policy statements and colorful posters. This circular reasoning fosters logical fallacies: You should feel welcomed because “I” (the organization leader) say “you are welcome.” For many organizations, diversity and inclusion may begin simply with representation, by bringing a woman’s or maybe a person of color’s perspective to the table. Often, this is seen as the first step in creating a melting-pot recipe of ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. Cultural assimilation is the broth and diverse individuals are the ingredients. Simmer on low for two or three years, and diversity will miraculously emerge. The challenge with cooking stews, however, is that the flavors are all absorbed into the broth, which means each employee is not valued for his or her unique contributions and individual attributes. Is this diversity? Another metaphor is the mixed salad, with each person representing a distinct vegetable, be it a crisp carrot, a vibrant beet, or lush romaine lettuce. Then, the magic occurs when the salad is doused with a dressing and all flavors become one—ranch, French, or a light balsamic vinaigrette. Once again, the dressing of choice masks the complexity and the very essence of diversity and inclusion. This still leaves us begging the question: Is this diversity? And where is the inclusion?

It is time to move beyond these antiquated metaphors and transform the ways we think about and engage with each other. Diversity is needed to bring together the brightest minds to create solutions to business, economic, and social challenges of the 21st century and beyond. Diversity creates an atmosphere where people come together and exchange ideas from diverse perspectives, life experience, and cultural backgrounds. It empowers teams to see through the eyes of ingenuity and creativeness. This lays the foundation for future business success.

To create this type of atmosphere in our bar associations, law firms, workplaces, and communities, intentional action is needed. Award-winning director Ava DuVernay characterizes this action as moving beyond diversity to organizational change and systems change: “We’re hearing a lot about diversity. . . . I hate that word so, so much. . . . I feel it’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue” (Cara Buckley, “Ava DuVernay on Hollywood’s Inclusion Problem,” New York Times, January 25, 2016, Instead, DuVernay proposes a focus on inclusion and belonging, which could radically transform organizational cultures.

The Leader’s Journey: Diversity and Inclusion as Core Competencies

This paradigm shift in relation to diversity and inclusion work will require leadership. Leaders are needed to rethink inclusion in law firms and bar associations. This will be evidenced by defining diversity, equity, inclusion goals, policies, and practices. My own concept of the Leadership Framework for Action provides a comprehensive approach for building the essential leadership competencies rooted in the principles of diversity and inclusion, which manifests in equity and justice.

Leadership is a journey often mistaken for a destination. On this journey, one learns many lessons: how to lead effectively, build new bridges, and establish a vision for the future. This is the foundation of leadership growth. On this journey, one must be willing to explore core values and how these values inform one’s understanding of leadership. This is the beginning of “knowing.” My Leadership Framework for Action includes four stages: intrapersonal (self and self-discovery), interpersonal (relationship with others), organizational (strategic outcomes and promoting equity), and societal (sustainable, durable solutions). This article will focus on the framework of action at the stages of the intrapersonal and interpersonal.

What Is Unconscious Bias/Implicit Bias?

The brain research on implicit bias (also referred to as “unconscious bias”) can serve as a valuable learning tool during this process of exploration and growth. It will provide you with a way to get beyond the tip of the iceberg. This is the place where there is a realization that the unconscious is a powerful mechanism that can dictate behavior and shape interactions. Left unchecked, we can move or act in an unconscious manner. This may cause unintended harm to others.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias as:

the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection. (

The Kirwan Institute provides a few key observations about implicit biases and how they operate:

  • Implicit biases are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality, such as judges.
  • Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs. They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.
  • The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.
  • We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own in-group, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our in-group.
  • Imlicit biases are malleable. Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques. (Id.)

How Common Are Implicit Biases?

Since 1998, more 20 million people have taken the Implicit Association Test (IAT), an online assessment at the Project Implicit website ( Despite the self-proclaimed title embraced by most individuals of being a good person and having good intentions, the data strongly suggest that many people hold implicit biases toward members of particular groups. For example, more than 80 percent of people who completed the IAT related to age bias exhibited a negative implicit bias against the elderly. In addition, about 75 percent of whites and Asians demonstrated an implicit bias in favor of whites compared to African Americans.

How to Address Unconscious Bias?

The first step in addressing unconscious bias is to begin examining your personal beliefs, values, attitudes, and perceptions. What experiences have shaped your personal narrative or worldview? How do these experiences influence your interactions with others? According to psychologists, implicit biases are shaped by our lived experiences. Implicit biases are learned from the society and community in which we live. In the early stages of life, we are exposed to images and ideological perspectives that define our vantage point. Some studies show evidence of implicit bias in people as young as one year old. The ideas and images over time become a part of our perspectives and influence us even when we do not realize it. These instances are manifested in our verbal/nonverbal communication, body language, and everyday interactions. Howard Ross, a thought leader on unconscious bias, warns: “Ultimately, we believe our decisions are consistent with our conscious beliefs, when in fact, our unconscious is running the show” (Everyday Bias, 2014).

Unconscious bias can be challenged through a process of critical reflection. This starts by looking introspectively. I refer to this as the process of putting up a mirror to see yourself clearer. Tools such as the IAT and the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) can aid you on this journey of self-discovery. Introspection should also include hunting hegemonic assumptions. As defined by Italian political economist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony is a “process whereby ideas, structures, and actions that benefit a small minority in power are viewed by the majority of people as wholly natural, preordained, and working for their own good” (cited in Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Second Edition, 2017). Hegemonic assumptions are assumptions that we think are in our own best interests but that actually work against us in the long run, according to leadership scholar Dr. Stephen Brookfield (Id.). This keeps our imagination bound in terms of this is the way things are versus this is the way things could be. Applying these concepts to diversity and inclusion, the workplace could and should be a place where individuals can unveil their gifts and talents in meaningful and productive ways without the impediments manifested through biases and stereotypes.

What Are Microagressions?

A microaggression can be manifested in a myriad of subtle ways and is pervasive in nature. According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, 2010). defines microaggression as: “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other nondominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.”

Microaggressions can be manifested through remarks that are perceived to be sexist, racist, odious, or offensive to a marginalized social group. These negative remarks can have a profoundly negative effect by diminishing the value and humanity of an individual and/or group. In the workplace, this can negatively impact work performance and team dynamics. Microaggressions also can have a detrimental impact on customers and clients, hence dwindling the potential of successful customer service and engagement.

How to Address Microaggressions

Addressing microaggressions requires a multifaceted approach. Leaders can initiate this process by:

  • challenging the microaggression when it occurs;
  • reframing the narrative by embracing differences as an asset and strength;
  • creating opportunities for a robust exchange of ideas—a foundation for innovation; and
  • providing professional development training opportunities that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

All these steps challenge leaders to take intentional action to build an inclusive and thriving workplace. This moves beyond having good intentions to creating the policies, practices, and atmosphere for business success. In his 1943 essay “The Snake in the House,” Langston Hughes challenged leaders to take strategic action: “be more than passively good-hearted.”

A Call to Action

Embark on this leadership development journey with others in your professional network or workplace. This article is a tool for strengthening your individual and collective leadership platforms by providing a framework for incorporating diversity and inclusion throughout your organizational structure. Most importantly, it will aid in developing a leadership lens through which you can see the vantage point of others and advance a collective vision.

Make a commitment to advance diversity and support inclusion within your organization. You can join nearly 10,000 organizations by taking the “I Act On Pledge” of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion ( The pledge is a clarion call to action that begins with making this commitment: “I pledge to check my bias, speak up for others and show up for all.” How can you act on the pledge? CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion suggests starting with the following commitments:

  • I will check my own biases and take meaningful action to understand and mitigate them.
  • I will initiate meaningful, complex, and sometimes difficult conversations with my friends and colleagues.
  • I will ask myself, “Do my actions and words reflect the value of inclusion?”
  • I will move outside my comfort zone to learn about the experiences and perspectives of others.
  • I will share my insights related to what I have learned. (Id.)

Self-reflection and engagement are the beginning steps to develop the core leadership competencies needed to make diversity, equity, and inclusion a lived reality.

Over the past decade, research has demonstrated how diversity makes us brighter by opening our eyes to new dimensions of thinking, creating, and building together. Further, diversity positively impacts performance and drives revenue because diverse teams generate better decisions. This is the value-added of diversity and inclusion. However, the report Women in the Workplace 2018, by McKinsey & Company in partnership with, found that we have not yet fully maximized the transformative power of diversity: “around 20 percent of employees say that their company’s commitment to gender diversity feels like lip service” ( Additionally, a 2018 Pew Research Center Study found about 22 percent of employees believe there is “too little focus” on racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace ( This is evidence of a missed opportunity for leaders to tap into innovation (the business case/imperative) and build a more just and inclusive society (the moral case/imperative).

Research from the Great Place to Work Research Team ( demonstrates that inclusive workplaces reap many benefits:

  • A 2016 study found annual revenue gains of 24 percent higher for most inclusive workplaces than their peers (which lack a diverse workplace environment).
  • Companies with gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to outperform their peers with less diversity.
  • Ethnically diverse companies were 35 percent more likely to outperform less diverse businesses. When racial gaps at work shrink, employees’ productivity, brand ambassadorship, and retention rates (i.e., intent to stay) rise.

Through intentional action, self-awareness, and tenacity, leaders can build a more inclusive workplace. What steps will you take to start building today?