Face-to-Face Workshops


Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has been a ‘hot topic’ in mainstream news this year, with high profile people talking about it, including Members of Parliament (MPs) and Prince Harry. 

We’re delighted unconscious bias is slowly becoming part of the vernacular, because with increased conversation, comes more awareness. It’s an important topic, which needs to be universally understood because once people start to challenge their own and other people’s unintentional biases, then we take steps towards living in a more just society.

So in what context has unconscious bias appeared in the news? Well, two months ago, a fierce debate broke out when the House of Commons offered unconscious bias training to MPs, only for a number of MPs to refuse to take part. – BBC News.

Simon Woolley, an anti-racism campaigner said he was “appalled” that some MPs had refused the unconscious bias training. He expressed that: “Particularly following the Black Lives Matter Movement, we need all our parliamentarians to make an honest appraisal about our often inbuilt prejudices. It would help them be better politicians.” – The Guardian.

Then again last month, Prince Harry spoke of his lack of awareness of unconscious bias growing up and how seeing his wife Meghan’s experience of unconscious bias had brought the subject into sharper focus for him: “I had no idea it existed. And then, sad as it is to say, it took me many, many years to realise it. Especially then living a day or a week in my wife’s shoes.” – YouTube interview.

Whilst unconscious bias doesn’t make the headlines as often as cases of discrimination (be it racism, sexism etc), that doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly damaging for those individuals who suffer as a result of it. Before we look at the detrimental impacts of UB, let’s first be clear about what it is and why it exists:

Unconscious biases are unintentional stereotypes or people preferences, formed through our social experiences, including family, school, friends, work culture and media exposure. It’s scientifically proven: ‘Unconscious bias has been identified, observed, and validated in brain studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology.’ – Psychology Today.

I think the brain science behind unconscious bias is fascinating! Unconscious bias happens when our brains make very quick judgements and categorises people and situations, without us even realising it. The brain does this because it is exposed to billions of pieces of information a day. It has to take cognitive shortcuts in order to process the sheer amount of data involved and to keep us safe (a super important skill in terms of human survival and evolutionarily-speaking). These shortcuts manifest in the form of assumptions, biases and preferences.

We all have unconscious biases. Yes, you, me and everyone in between! Even if you believe yourself not to be prejudiced or discriminatory, you will still act in biased ways. It’s a by-product of our cognitively limited brains. Behavioural scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal says: “Nobody wants to think that they are biased, but we all are and once we start acknowledging that we can do something about it.” – The Guardian. 

Did you know there are different types of unconscious bias? ‘Affinity Bias’ is when you like someone, because they are similar to you, for example. ‘Conformity Bias’ is falling into line with the thoughts of others, rather than exercising your own independent judgement. You can learn about other types of unconscious bias in this Enact Solutions’ blog we wrote. What I find striking is how pervasive unconscious biases are, seeping into all aspects of our lives, both personally and professionally. 

In the workplace, for example, unconscious bias is often evident in people’s micro-behaviours – ‘the little things that we say and do that show how we regard those around us. Even these very small behaviours can make people feel excluded and can have long-term effects.’ – HR Magazine. For example interrupting or speaking over a colleague in a meeting or leaving someone out of a working group discussion might result from unintentional biases, but they negatively impact on staff inclusivity.

Unconscious bias can also affect decisions on recruitment, allocation of work, staff development and promotions. As ACAS explains: ‘Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.’ Not only is this not fair to individuals, but it’s not good for business.

It’s widely known and scientifically proven through multiple studies that diverse workforces perform better financially. (McKinsey & Company) By having a diverse workforce – employees of all different ages, cultural backgrounds, gender, physical and mental abilities, race, religion, sexual orientation etc, then your organisation will be richer in experience and produce better results.

It’s therefore important for companies to understand the benefits of a diverse workplace, train employees to be aware of unconscious bias and its detrimental impacts, reflect on their own biases, examine recruitment and working practices and take steps to minimise the impact of unconscious bias. As this BBC Worklife article explains: ‘Unconscious bias keeps people and businesses from reaching their full potential and it perpetuates cycles of inequality. The good news is, there are ways to try and correct it.’

Unconscious Bias is our most popular workshop at Enact Solutions (see our Events page for upcoming showcases) and we’re thrilled that companies are committed to learning about and challenging their unconscious biases. 

Our Artistic Director, Daniel McClelland says: “One of the main reasons companies have cited coming to us at Enact Solutions recently for our unconscious bias training is because of how much inequality and prejudice has been highlighted through George Floyd, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and Covid-19. Companies are becoming more aware that they need to do more to raise awareness and challenge damaging behaviours and stereotypes.”

He goes on to say: “Our unconscious mind is considered to be the beating heart of our people preferences and bias, so you could argue that racism, sexism, and simply put prejudice in all its forms, stems from our unconscious brain. In many cases this isn’t our fault, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to change. We teach people to become aware of their unconscious biases and therefore be able to challenge them.”

It’s a statement echoed by Prince Harry: “No-one is blaming anybody . . . You can’t really point the fingers, especially when it comes to unconscious bias. But once you realise . . . then the onus is on you to go out and educate yourself, because ignorance is no longer an excuse.”

Let’s keep learning.

Jemma Houghton


Jemma Houghton is one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy.


‘It Was Truly…. Awful’: Witnessing Workplace Bullying

Bullying, Harassment & IncivilityI recently wrote about the difficult conversations we are having of late and how to turn these into more productive communication. One such topic, which can be very difficult to talk about, is bullying, harassment, and incivility in the workplace. As with anything, the more we talk about it, the easier it becomes to discuss. So with that in mind…

…Let’s look at and discuss the data first. HR Magazine wrote a bullying and harassment article in 2015 referencing research conducted by Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). ‘Acas estimates that workplace bullying costs the UK economy almost £18 billion per year in absence, staff turnover and lost productivity.’ – Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain’s workplaces.

This is a shocking amount of money, especially given the state of the economy at the moment: “The UK economy suffered its biggest slump on record between April and June [2020] as coronavirus lockdown measures pushed the country officially into recession.” – BBC News article. 

Whilst workplace bullying and harassment carries a hefty price-tag, it’s nothing compared to the human cost, as Acas explains: ‘Research has found that people bullied at work can experience a range of psychological and physical health problems, often affecting their relationships with family and friends, and for some, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorders.’

Witnessing bullying behaviours also carries a cost. Acas’ research indicates that, ‘those who witness bullying and its impacts may be equally affected.’

What’s most upsetting though, is the severity workplace bullying can cause: ‘In more extreme cases, helpline advisers reported that callers had related how workplace bullying led to them self-harming or contemplating suicide.’

And frighteningly, research suggests that the numbers are rising.

So how many people are experiencing it? Well the Trade Union Congress (TUC) conducted some research in this area in 2015. A poll carried out by YouGov for the TUC revealed ‘nearly a third of people (29%) have been bullied at work‘. It’s important to note that the sample size was relatively small at 1,738 adults, so more research is needed to see if this is representative across the UK workforce. Whatever the number though, we can all agree it’s too many and the price too high. 

Whilst the majority of organisations have dozens of policies, including on the topic of bullying and harassment, the problem with these documents is that they’re not often revisited. That’s why it’s important to have regular training, so that we can identify problematic behaviours when they occur, have a practised response for dealing with them and nip them in the bud.

I remember the first time I witnessed bullying in the workplace environment. Years ago, a manager started shouting at a staff-member, in the middle of an open plan office. The manager wanted to see a piece of work, but her employee had prioritised a separate report, for valid reasons. Regardless of the context, how the manager behaved was totally inappropriate. It was reminiscent of a parent losing their temper and full on screaming at their daughter.

It. Was. Truly…. Awful. I exchanged looks with nearby colleagues. I looked to older colleagues (I was in my twenties at the time), begging them silently to do something – to challenge the manager’s behaviour. However everyone just looked shocked and equally unsure what to do.

I considered interrupting the exchange, but wasn’t sure if this would make it worse? I was worried about the volatility of the manager… that she would find my interrupting her, unprofessional (!) and perhaps turn on me. Her anger was frightening. In moments like this, your thoughts race and it’s hard to know what to do in the moment.

The staff member looked deeply upset and uncomfortable during the rant. Embarrassment and shame flooded her face and you could see her willing the tirade to be over; much like we all were. Her chagrin (unjust at that) was awful to witness. As soon as the manager walked away, I emailed my colleague and asked how they were, stating how inappropriate the manager had been. She was grateful for my email. She said the relationship had been deteriorating, but she didn’t know why. She seemed resigned to that type of ‘communication’ from her boss and that she’d have to suffer through it. She felt her only other option was to perhaps look for another job. 

We spoke again, in person, the next day. A few colleagues had emailed her, which was nice, but it seemed no-one had spoken to the manager or reported it. I was shocked. Evidently the bystander effect was at play. The University of Portsmouth Research Portal explains that ‘diffusion of responsibility; audience inhibition and social influence’, are key factors which play into bystander reticence.

I’m a fairly passionate person; motivated strongly by ethics and I can’t bear injustice or unkindness. The incident kept replaying in my mind and I felt frustrated at the outcome. I was deeply upset for my colleague, so finally made an appointment with the department head to speak about the matter. 

It was a deeply uncomfortable conversation! I was nervous. I felt ‘inappropriate’, almost ‘wrong’ commenting on the behaviour of a more senior member of staff. I thought, ‘who am I, a more junior member of staff, to say a manager had behaved unacceptably?

You expect your managers to be professional, more knowledgeable, and to be ‘right’. So it was hard to stand up and say that something was amiss. That someone had been verbally abused. Bullied. These words carry weight. I had moments of doubt. Did I perceive it wrongly? Would the manager get in ‘too’ much trouble: a disciplinary note on their file? Thoughts whizzed through my head, right up to and during the meeting. 

Whilst the organisation was a great place to work – professional and liberal, I also worried that reporting it might affect my job; that I might be seen as someone ‘making waves’ and my fixed term contract not extended. 

The polarity of my thoughts was ridiculous. It’s because it was a new, uncomfortable and stressful experience for me. And one I had no experience in, so didn’t know how to navigate. 

I am so thankful that I stood up and said something. We’ve all had moments where we haven’t spoken up and regret it later. It can haunt you. It was the right thing to do for my colleague and they were grateful when I told them afterwards.

Experiencing bullying makes you vulnerable. It can leave indelible scars, if forced to face it alone. Active support and empathy from colleagues can increase a person’s self-efficacy and result in positive change within an organisation.

It was also a key learning moment for me. Whilst uncomfortable at the time, I feel that if I saw inappropriate behaviour like this again, I would address and challenge it more quickly; with less insecurity and more confidence.  

That’s why bullying and harassment policies aren’t enough. Organisations need to have regular and experiential training on these issues. You need to: 

  • practise establishing what constitutes bullying, harassment & incivility behaviour.
  • practise understanding the grey line between banter and bullying.
  • practise inner reflection, making sure you’re aware of your own behaviours and how they might be perceived.
  • practise challenging bullying, harassment or incivility, as this can be difficult to do.

In Enact Solutions’ Bullying, Harassment and Incivility Workshop, participants get to experience these inappropriate behaviours through fictional characters, in a realistic but safe environment. They see the impact bullying, harassment or incivility has on characters, through filmed and live interactive content. Crucially they get to practise working together to challenge the negative behaviours. 

In essence it’s about changing the culture to create a more collaborative and supportive environment, which in turn makes a healthier, happier and more productive workplace environment. And who doesn’t want that?

Thanks for reading.

Jemma Houghton


Jemma Houghton is one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy.