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01 Jul 2016

How can coaches recognise unconscious bias in themselves and then help their clients do the same? Jenny Plaister-Ten and Carol Whitaker report

We all have unconscious bias. The key is to recognise it. Unconscious bias triggers automatic judgements and assessments. Research from the KRW Institute (2009) suggests that 95 per cent of our decisions are made automatically – and we make around 1,000 decisions a day.

Some are made and stuck to with dire consequences, such as the BP oil tanker disaster of 2010. Others are made with undesirable consequences, such as recruiting in our own image.

Social scientists (such as Tajfel and Turner, 2004) have long recognised that we are wired to like and trust people like us. This means we quickly form allegiance to an ingroup and reject an outgroup. We expect, at an unconscious level, people to behave as we do. Conversely, we are wired to distrust people who are not like us. This can have undesirable consequences. For example, it can lead to stereotyping, misappropriation of blame and unfair treatment and processes.

In coaching, this can mean possible collusion, transference, projection, lack of challenge and matching for similarity rather than difference. Furthermore, in the matching process, it may be assumed that clients prefer to be coached by someone with a similar background, or in their native language. This may limit the depth of the coaching engagement. It seems that in cross-cultural coaching, being of a different nationality to the client could in fact be a useful tool.

In an excerpt from research by Plaister-Ten (2009, p72) a French coach, talking about coaching someone from Spain, says: “It’s about being extremely candid – asking for clarification, even using the pretext as an excuse that I was not born and raised in their culture.”

Around 150 key biases have so far been identified according to Jeffery (2014). Table 1 shows some common ones. These are unknown to us, yet they are present in our everyday thought patterns and decisions. It takes 50 milliseconds to make a decision about another’s gender and only double that about another’s race (Jeffery, 2014) .

This questions our assumptions about our rationality. We have far less capacity to make considered decisions than we think. Furthermore, neuroscience now shows us that we can’t even believe what we see. The visual centre of the brain is at the back of the head and we make sense of things before the visual image connects to it. That’s why identity parades are often inaccurate and this puts our whole legal system at question. In social settings (hobbies) too, bias can influence even the selection of musicians in an orchestra. Consider the TV programme, The Voice, which recognises biases by introducing ‘blind’ selection.

Unconscious bias, of course, serves a purpose when we are under threat, overwhelmed or in need of snap decisions. Kahneman, in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), says that when you think, your mind uses two cognitive systems: System 1, which works easily and automatically, makes quick judgements based on familiar patterns and is where bias occurs. System 2, on the other hand, takes more effort to operate; it requires intense focus and operates methodically.

These two systems interact continually, but not always smoothly.

Typically, there is a tendency for people to make simple stories out of complex reality. We seek causes in random events, consider rare occurrences likely and overweight the importance of our experiences. Hindsight bias causes us to distort reality by realigning memories with new information. On top of all this, we are bombarded by messages every day from the media and through commercial advertisements – messages designed to prime our decisions.

Two very significant areas where bias can impact the very fibre of our social and economic institutions are in gender and race.

Gender bias

Women are under-represented across the world. The World Economic Forum, in its Global Gender Gap Report (2015) has, since 2009, tracked and measured gender equality in 142 countries. This is based on four measures: Economic Participation, Education, Health and Political Empowerment. No country has achieved parity between the genders, but the top four are all Nordic countries, which have closed more than 80 per cent of the gap. Germany ranks 11th and France 15th. The UK, at 18th, enters the top 20 rising from 26th, due to improvements on the Economic, Health and Political Empowerment sub-indexes.

However, the US drops to 28th and continues to fall back, largely in the dimension of Political Empowerment and women in ministerial positions.

Partly in response to these findings, The Women’s Equality Party was launched last March in London and the BBC, as part of its ‘100 Women’ season, hosted a debate for senior media figures on 23 November, entitled: ‘Is the news failing women?’ This was after finding that 66 per cent of the BBC’s global audience is male, thus many television programmes are not written in a way that engages women.

Women have and continue to receive a fair amount of priming from societal expectations. Christine Lagarde, for example, the first female member of the International Monetary Fund, was told by a male partner in her law firm that as a woman she would not make it to partner. Board representation in the UK has improved – 20.7 per cent in 2014 compared with 12.5 per cent in 2011. However, most of those posts are non-executive directors (NEDS) rather than executive posts.

Pay gaps persist. The Chartered Management Institute published research last year showing that pay gaps between men and women widen as women move up an organisation, and women over 40 were found to be paid 35 per cent less than men in comparable jobs.

The situation becomes more complex when the results of a major new study in the US by and McKinsey & Company are factored in.

Women in the Workplace (2015) found that in corporate America men do not “see” gender inequality. Some 88 per cent of the men surveyed thought women had as many opportunities to advance as men, despite data saying that their chances of advancement were15 per cent lower.

So, there is evidence of women facing bottlenecks and ‘sticky floors’, as well as ‘glass ceilings’ and ‘bamboo ceilings’ in Asia. Women, though, also have unconscious bias, resulting in lack of aspiration for themselves and other women. They suffer far more readily from psychological states, such as ‘imposter syndrome’ or guilt when juggling work and family demands.

Racial and ethnic bias

In the current climate of widespread migration, stereotyping seems to be on the increase. Survival instincts are being triggered, as is fear of outgroups, with a negative impact on social cohesion. For example, according to a report to the UK Government, attacks on people in the UK with a Muslim background rose by 300 per cent after the Paris atrocities in November 2015.

We all know about the inappropriateness of ‘judging people’ for the colour of their skin, but research (Thomas, 2001) has shown that black and minority ethnics (BMEs) in the US are subjected to a two-tier system, whereby it is not until they have proven themselves to be highly competent that they get a promotion. Their white counterparts, on the other hand, have been found to be promoted based on potential ability. This can have negative consequences in team selection and team building, since the value of diversity for creativity and innovation may be overlooked.

When we encounter someone of a different cultural background, it is often their behaviour which seems strange to us. This can cause frustration and poor working relationships. Working practices can be a manifestation of deeply held values and beliefs that are “below the waterline” as in the metaphor “the cross-cultural iceberg”.

Think, for example, of someone who talks incessantly at the start of the meeting as compared with someone who just wants to get on with it. The former is likely to be from a relationship-orientated culture. The latter, on the other hand, may be from a culture valuing the task over the relationship.

As we increasingly work with people from all the over the globe, these clashes are likely to occur more frequently unless we understand the cultural tendencies of others and avoid stereotyping. Research from University College London even suggests that some stereotypes are unproven – such as pregnant women being forgetful and older workers being incompetent with technology. The more we challenge our stereotypical responses, the less likely we are to become victims of unconscious bias.

  • Be rigorous in processes

HR professionals are already recommending nameless applications on recruitment processes. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development public policy adviser, diversity, Dianah Worman, recently made a recommendation about this to the UK Government.

  • Quotas These receive both good and bad press. On the one hand, they may be seen as an act of positive discrimination and therefore those selected under a quota scheme may not be taken seriously. On the other hand, some companies, such as Vodafone Turkey, have decided to recruit women only until the gender imbalance has been redressed.

Interestingly, in this example, women still need a male sponsor, as this decision came from male executives at Vodafone Turkey.

  • Constantly challenge yourself and apply some filters Suspend judgement and process consciously.
  • Be critical in analysis, identifying the facts of the situation, the possible alternatives and the potential risks, as well as validating the findings with a trusted person, therefore “widening your options” (Heath and Heath, 2013).
  • Be aware that you may perhaps be recruiting, selecting and coaching in your own image

What can coaches do?

  • Raise our own awareness It is essential that as coaches we work on our own awareness and judgements. Without this awareness, we cannot be sure that the questions we ask are not ‘tarnished’ with our own biases. This becomes increasingly important as ‘challenging coaching’ gains more ground. A coaching question is often asked from the perspective of another person’s lens. Coaches can lessen this effect by signposting that they are offering alternative views/questions from their own perspective.
  • Accept that we all have biases Even as coaches, we are not immune.
  • Be aware that not only may we be coaching in our own image, but matching in the client’s image as well.
  • ‘Out it’: share ideas and challenge assumptions Draw on co-coaching, supervision and peers to develop a reflex that does not assume we are right. Work on your humility.
  • Mitigate Use techniques, such as ‘chairs’ (Rogers, 2004) or space work. Both these techniques build perspectives through the use of space, time and context. Stepping into the shoes of another person helps to loosen up rigidly held perspectives.
  • Hold opposing values at bay ‘Hold the space’ for opposing values to co-exist, in full acceptance ‘as is’.
  • Illuminate where bias may be affecting the coaching issue This skill requires that we illuminate the ‘shoulds and oughts’ the client is driven by and help reshape those perspectives.
  • Help to balance perspective and mitigate conflict Use reflective practice tools, such as the Dive model or the Soap model.
  • Consider incorporating The Kaleidoscope Model™ (Plaister-Ten, 2013) This model enables insight about the client’s social and cultural influences from both macro and micro perspectives.

How unconscious bias works: some examples

  • At a recent workshop, a senior HR executive attending with her colleague, mentioned that when she had been recruiting for her team she had had a young male candidate and was swayed by his good looks and persuasive personality to offer him a post – against her colleague’s advice. Now, faced with his lack of performance, she reflected that although she was an experienced recruiter, she had been biased by his appearance and confidence.
  • A Nigerian woman reported that she had taken a temporary role with an organisation and that her line manager encouraged her to apply for an internal vacancy, which she had done and had been successful. However, her new line manager, who was also Nigerian, seemed to expect higher standards of work and behaviour from her. It would seem she didn’t want to appear to give favour to someone of her own ethnicity, so she discriminated.
  • At an international conference, an experienced executive coach said he had relied successfully on his intuition in the past and therefore didn’t feel he was biased. He had also received positive feedback. However, after reflecting on the discussions, he admitted that perhaps he just discounted contra evidence. This was deeply disturbing to him and made him reassess his approach.
  • A delegate discussed their recent encounter after an appraisal session with a severely disabled wheelchair-bound colleague who, when asked what her dream was for the next year, had said “to be intimate”.
    The delegate said she was taken aback because she had not thought of her colleague in a relationship – and then realised she had preconceived ideas about disability.

Concluding remarks

It seems that organisations are at the awareness-raising stage of surfacing issues associated with unconscious bias. Yet, biases are the ‘invisible air’ through which we walk every day and they exert their influence outside our conscious awareness (Lieberman, Rock and Cox, 2014).

The enjoyment we feel when we are right is one of the main reasons we are motivated to overlook our own biases. The consequences of doing this are stereotyping and a lack of robust decision-making.

Let us be instrumental in moving to the bias reduction stage. Overuse of intuition in the coaching relationship should therefore be questioned.

Table 1: Some common biases

  • Projection bias
  • Confirmation bias
  • Hindsight bias
  • Social comparison bias
  • Subjective validation
  • Stereotyping
  • Self-serving bias
  • Halo effect
  • Horns effect
  • Illusion of transparency
  • Post-purchase rationalisation
  • Ingroup bias


  • A Grant, 3 Dec 2015, ‘Why men don’t see gender inequality’, World Economic Forum blog, accessed on 16/12/15 at:
  • Chartered Management Institute, 2015, ‘Female managers over 40 paid 35% less than male peers, finds survey’, accessed from CIPD on 21/12/15 at:
  • C Heath and D Heath, Decisive: How to Make Choices in Life and Work, Crown Business Books, New York: Random House, 2013
  • R Jeffery, ‘Diet cola makes you (even) more racist’, in People Management magazine, pp22-26, 2014
  • D Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
  • KRW Research Institute, The CEO’s Worldview and Business Results: A Research Concept Paper, White Paper 102, 2009
  • M D Lieberman, D Rock and C L Cox, ‘Breaking bias,’ in NeuroLeadership, 5, p1, 2014
  • J Plaister-Ten, ‘Towards greater cultural understanding in coaching’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue 3, pp64–81, 2009
  • J Plaister-Ten, ‘Raising culturally-derived awareness and building culturally-appropriate responsibility: The development of the cross-cultural kaleidoscope’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 11(2), pp54 – 69, 2013
  • J Rogers, Coaching Skills: A Handbook, Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education, 2004
  • H Tajfel and J C Turner, ‘An integrative theory of intergroup conflict’, in M J Hatch and M Schultz (eds), Organizational Identity, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
  • D A Thomas, The truth about mentoring minorities – race matters’, in Harvard Business Review, pp98-107, April 2001
  • World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2015. Accessed on 16/12/15 at:
  • World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2015 – country rankings. Accessed on 16/12/15 at:

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