nonprofit workplace

What is unconscious confirmation biasing?

The term is defined as one group holding social stereotypes about certain other groups outside of any conscious awareness. It’s unintentional group think, a mixture of both seeking out conclusions which confirm what we already believe to be true and letting unconscious preconceptions direct how we manage staff, volunteers and donors in our nonprofit workplace.

It’s a universal trait displayed across peoples and cultures throughout the world, and it’s only recently that anyone has even tried to counterbalance its potential negative impact on the workplace.

Most of us would like to think we are immune to its effects, but if you’ve got a pulse then you’ve got some form of unconscious bias silently influencing everyday actions and outcomes.

The American Bar Association offers a free test to illustrate how we are all susceptible to this, no matter how sure we won’t be.

Even with the best of intentions it’s hard to identify what we overlook, or how our decisions affect those locked out of decision processes to begin with.

Why does avoiding unconscious confirmation bias in the nonprofit workplace matter?

The negative impact of unconscious confirmation bias ranges widely but can include:

  • The tendency to dismiss out of hand evidence which doesn’t align with our preconceived ideas, while getting behind ones which merely confirm misconceptions. 
  • Making flawed conclusions based on cultural preconceptions and creating action plans built on fundamental misunderstanding of available information sources.
  • Evaluating feedback poorly and unintentionally negatively affecting groups in other communities.
  • Accidentally acting unfairly to individuals under your care or employment.

These days conscientious employers, board members and volunteer recruiters try to counteract unconscious biases, yet it’s a tough task.

Unfortunately the average nonprofit board is a pretty good breeding ground for unconscious biases. When compared to the national demographic they are significantly more male and white than the population as a whole, leading to a likelihood of groupthink.

A breakdown of national board member statistics illustrates this point.

  • 78.6% white, (when it’s 57% by population).
  • 43% female, (when it’s 50.8% by population). Though it reduces to 33% female representation on the board when the nonprofit passes an annual income of 25 million dollars. 
  • 7.5% African American (when it’s 13.4% by population)
  • 4.2% Latino American (when it’s 18% by population).
  • 2.6% Asian American (when it’s 5.7% by population).

Unconscious confirmation bias can’t be easily removed but it can be counterbalanced to some degree. For example if a group is primarily of one racial or religious background it’s encouraged others from outside that group are brought in to help identify blind spots. It’s rare anyone will be deliberately trying to treat their volunteers or employees poorly, but the effect of too narrow an opinion pool at the top has the same effect.

Counter measures for confirmation bias in the nonprofit workplace

  • Actively push your organization to make contact with representatives of other social groups.
  • Get multiple eyes on information, focusing on those outside of the homogeneous majority.
  • Proactively look for figure heads in your community who work within minority groups and cultivate their participation in your nonprofit. 
  • Organize days when those from every background in your organization (big or small) have the chance to express their experiences of their working life.
  • Show interest in learning what they see that you may not. This works from every angle, no matter what the ethnic, religious or social background.
  • Keep channels open for ideas to reach management about how to better consider religious needs. A Christian centric nation tends to assume the calendar pivots on historically Christian festivities, yet other faiths have a different perception of the year and even the working week. It’s difficult for those voices to make themselves heard unless an effort is made to listen.
  • Appreciate those who have alternative life experiences in their background when in recruitment phases. Discuss this challenge regularly with other leaders in your organization if you can.

A key factor is that we can try to minimize unconscious bias and lessen its likelihood of negatively impacting your employees, volunteers and financial contributions.

In fairness a lot of good people are trying to address this issue and there are many more factors at play than unconscious biases alone: be it historical, educational or cultural. But whatever the reason, the reality is that it’s even more important that those in charge of the mission consider outside voices.

Merely by seeking out the widest possible input and taking careful consideration of each individual’s unique perspective, can we identify effective and fair pathways, enrich the environment we work in, increase productivity, economic goals, and lead best practice for others to follow. 

Nonprofit Sustainability

Nick Wood

Nick Wood

Freelance Journalist & Author
Nick Wood is a freelance journalist and author. Specializing in the nonprofit Industry, digital media, and the travel sector. With years of experience working within the industry on the ground in the UK and further afield. Founder of light-on-light, a project addressing the stories of individuals and organisations making a positive and intentional impact on society. For enquiries, nickjohnwood@mail.com.