HoW Unconscious Bias Hinders your Team success


Every international expatriate and team leader can learn to recognize unconscious prejudices and deal with them constructively. At the end of the article, you'll get my top six tips.

Welcome back to Germany

In 2002, after seven years abroad, I returned to Germany.  It was nice to come back. But also hard. I had a Returnee culture shock. Read my blog post about it here:

The Germans are annoying me!

After a time of great joy at the fact that my bus really stops at the minute at 7 am 00. However, a little frustration gradually entered my life: The bus also runs exactly at 7:00 and does not wait until 7:00 and 20 seconds. No mercy! No matter how much I rush off and try to give the bus driver signs. There they are usually merciless. And did you know, that crossing a red light as a pedestrian cost you 120 Euros (yes, also at 3:00 am, in the middle of nowhere, no car in sight …). My rule-flexible Austrian soul did not like this at all.

The others are stupid!

So I was annoyed by the "German system". Accustomed to the Italian nonchalance in dealing with red traffic lights (it is only an orientation system!), The flexibility in dealing with parking tickets (Austria), as well as the sheer mass of car parks in the US (extremely large country), I found Germany bureaucratic, narrow-minded and inflexible.
Sharing my frustration in a conversation with German friends, they replied: "Everybody has to do it like that!"

Maybe you know that too: there is this colleague who is annoying. He is super loud and "always so extroverted", which is getting on your nerves.
Or the teamwork with the colleagues from Germany: "Why are they so cold. They seem to be robots. They never share anything about their personal life." How unprofessional is that!"

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Realizing: this mindset does not take me far

No matter how stupid you secretly think your colleague is, or how stupid I found the system: The probability that "the other" will change for your sake is extremely low. No matter how annoying. If you keep getting upset, you waste your time. What can you do instead?

I needed a solution!

"Nothing in itself is good or bad, it is the thinking that makes it so (Shakespeare)."

Luckily I got a key insight to this matter in my psychology studies. In one of the group dynamics exercises, we worked on the topic of "projections." Warning: For what is coming now, you need strong nerves! You'll find out you're part of the problem.

Help! I am having a projection

You have a projection when you attribute weaknesses or problems to other people that you yourself have openly or covertly. So if the colleague is so annoyingly extroverted, then you may never allow yourself to do so. As a psychologist, I always recommend a glimpse into childhood, if you are interested in where this all came from. Maybe you have learned to always be nice, calm and not too loud, because otherwise ... In any case, as non-German, you probably learned, that Small-Talk is an essential part of making business and connecting to other people.

Both keeping quiet in childhood and learning about small-talk had their full justification. You simply can not build a business, if you are not relationship-oriented - at least in the USA, Italy, and Austria. But on the one hand, you are now a grown-up person and on the other hand, you are not working with people from your culture, but with Germans, who usually believe, that Small-Talk is unprofessional and a waste of time.

Don´t take this lightly: If you categorically small talk, your business relations with Germans will usually suffer massively. Plus, all of your suppressed parts are no longer available to you. What a waste of resources and livelihood.

If another person lives your suppressed part (let´s say in an extreme way), this split part is triggered in us. But you can actually be grateful to all the people who trigger your "terrible projections". Because they remind you of a task you still have to do. If that's what you want. Because to conquer your hidden parts, you need to be a hero*ine.

May I introduce: your shadow

These split parts are in your subconscious, which is called your shadow (C. G. Jung). This is the part of your consciousness that you don't have direct access to, but that determines by 80% how you think, feel and act. Can you believe it? Basically, it determines how you perceive your reality.

Oh, you thought there's just one objective reality?

There are some people who claim that they are made up entirely of light and love. They say they do not have a shadow. Most of the time, they also claim that they have no prejudices. Often they have a slightly aggressive undertone ...
I am one of those people with a proper shadow. Science says, that Unconscious Biases are one of our innate biological functions.

Science says: it's your brain's fault

Your brain is made up of connected regions. It is constantly evolving and constantly processes in your subconscious. In doing so, it uses certain patterns to save energy. Your brain is a little sloth!
In this energy-saving process, Unconscious Biases are produced. Inevitably. They are a kind of perception filter, that constantly perceives and interprets people and situations. These energy-saving processes are a key feature of your brain.

Remember your last vacation. Remember the airport. All these different people walking around. Within milliseconds, you (r brain) interpret*s them, as e.g. belonging to your peer-group or not. Your brain also finds very good reasons for "why they really are" how you think or feel they are.

Bad news, if you are a person who loves to think: The more and better you can explain to yourself why the other person is really the way you think, the more you believe it.

As soon as you have created such an Unconscious Bias, it sticks with you. Your (and my) brain is a lazy fellow and loves to think in categories.

My experience with everyday rascism

While in Italy, I was looking for an apartment. With my  German-accent-Italian, I called a number in an ad. The short answer to my call was: "No stranieri!" "No foreigners". I was shocked. In Germany and Austria, I had always been a pleasure for the landlords. In Austria, I believe I even had a German-bonus (stereotype idea, that all Germans are always orderly and pay their rent on time ;). But this woman directly put me into her "foreigners" box and did not bother to ever speak with me again.

By the way: I have heard numerous similar example from people (with a non-German sounding name), who tried to rent an apartment in Germany.

A thought experiment

I invite you to partake in a thought experiment: what do you think about me? What kind of person am I? What can you say about me, looking at my picture, my website, my writing style? I am sure you have already put me into a box. Because we all do.

Happy to read your comments and thoughts below! I am looking forward to learning more about you. Because: what do you really know about me? And: what does your perception have to do with you?

Unconscious Biases have a negative effect on your teamwork

So your teamwork sucks, because this German is always so cold, or the Italian late? The Austrians constantly drink coffee and the US-Americans Small-Talk superficially?

Possible, that this goes for one or the other in this culture. But the perception you are having says mainly something about you and your cultural glasses and not the other person.

If you meet people with your interpretations of them (we all do), and do not question these (the least people do so), you will get a performance problem: instead of joining forces (the true power of a diverse team) you will create a power-game around "how it should be best done" - which is a waste of time and energy. Most cultural diverse projects still fail due to this simple truth.

Taking back control

Good news is: You can tale back your control. But - and this is really important - never by controlling the others, but by taming your mindset. Because this is what you have the most power over. Which will make you way more successful and powers your team to give even more than the best. You will create flow within your team. Nobody gets culturally frustrated and has to suppress their cultural way of doing things (which was shown in numerous studies, by e.g. Maziewski & Di Stefano), can lead to a massive performance drop.

To do so, you must tame your ego though. And tell it, that you are back in control. How to? Happy to provide you with my six top tips and have you in one of my Intercultural training.

Unconscious Bias Training - some group work


My six Top-Tipps for dealing with Unconscious Biases

"The highest human form can be observed without evaluating (Jiddu Krishnamurti).

  1. Become aware of your unconscious biases
    • In principle, question your first impression of a person, group or situation. So do with your (inner and outer) reactions.
    • Remember that individuals and also organizations that think they're objective usually have the biggest unconscious biases. No one is really objective!
  2. Build companies, teams, and collaboration groups that recognize unconscious biases
    • Encourage all colleagues to be conscious about biases and share theirs openly. Be a leader and share yours first!
    • Actively ask for input. Thank you when biases are named.
    • If you notice you've made a mistake, apologize.
  3. Find out about the topic, read blog articles, for example. Check :)!
  4. Whenever you feel triggered by someone: Pause for a moment. Instead of interpreting the situation, describe it.
  5. Slow down the process of finding solutions, especially when it gets stressful. Think again about your very precise reasons why you made this decision.
  6. Question your cultural steretypes ( all Germans are on time!)

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