How can social workers tackle unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases effect us all, says Ellie Garraway of the charity Youth At Risk. Social workers must actively counter this

Working with health
Photo: Burger Phanie Rex Features

by Ellie Garraway, chief operating officer at Youth at Risk

Unconscious Bias is subtle but pervasive. It’s a blindspot which means it is impossible to see past it on your own and yet it shapes your actions constantly.

All of us have these biases, they have become our reality, they define who we can and can’t make a difference to, and our beliefs about what people are capable of. Our practice becomes limited.

We often go into our careers full of vision and passion, ‘I want to make a difference’, is the drive for many of us. But we don’t realise that our beliefs, inherited and formed out of our life experiences, institutional culture and upbringing, all create our reality. Like a fish in water, we are unaware that the water is there, shaping our every thought and decision.

Youth professionals experience unconscious bias just like anyone else and it affects the choices they make. In this profession more than most we all need the opportunity to confront our limiting mindsets, our own blindspots. So much training focuses on the skills to do the job, but little is about the ‘being’ or the mindset to be effective and yet this has a huge capability to transform outcomes.

The first step is to spot it, awareness is key. Below are a few of the typical blind spots teams identify when we are working with them on unconscious bias. Importantly these are not criticisms of existing practice but attitudes individuals have uncovered for themselves that have been limiting them from being their best.

1. Blame. In a profession like social work many staff have had to protect themselves against a blame culture and this has become ingrained in their practice as a habitual low-risk approach. Professionals are fearful at times of taking ‘right action’ in the face of disagreement or of being the one to make key decisions and so a blindspot develops. Whilst teams may say they are comfortable with risk-taking and see it as unavoidable, in practice they are stifled by the fear of blame and begin to lose touch with their professional instincts.

2. Too busy. Another unconscious bias identified is shaped by the demand to do ‘more for less’. Professionals have prioritised ‘getting things done’ over important investments in their own development like reflective practice. Without spending time on reflection and development they risk perpetuating the cycle of being ‘too busy’ but become vulnerable to making the same mistakes twice and losing sight of their original aspirations.

3. Mistrust. One final example is a mistrust of other services: through historic experience, an ‘us and them’ bias can develop between services such that teams do not effectively collaborate or challenge each other. This can cause delays in the progress of cases as each team believes the other is ineffective and lowers the standard of what can be achieved or expected, failing to proactively confront and deal with the breakdown in effective working.

Tackling these issues is very hard to do alone by virtue of the fact that they are unconscious.

Youth at Risk’s courses guide groups through a series of training conversations which are designed to seek out and confront these biases head-on. Often for the first time, professionals have the space and opportunity to explore ways in which they have unconsciously limited themselves and others.

How to tackle unconscious bias

Here are some of the practices that enable practitioners to avoid or tackle unconscious biases.

Firstly, one thing that can be done right now is to be willing to examine our own practice by questioning ourselves with a ‘beginner’s mind’ – a childlike (non-judgmental) curiosity. When we are willing to question our assumptions and the ingrained beliefs that sit behind them we become open to discovering our limitations. It takes a willingness to be brutally honest with ourselves.

Secondly, listen.

If we listen hard to those around us and focus on the present rather than expectations from the past, we may well hear something new. Particularly listen to those that are complaining, they may be the key to an insight about ourselves if we’re willing to hear it. If we drop our defences and listen to negative feedback from a place of learning it can create a light bulb moment.

Lastly, seek feedback and build teams that value open and honest reflection, this is key to sustaining an environment where we learn from our own practice and avoid becoming ingrained in set approaches.

Support is vital 

Being willing to explore why we do things the way we do them is a great asset to a team working in such an intensive frontline role – this level of support is crucial to counteracting unconscious bias.

The key moment is seeing what has previously been unseen. This happens through identifying negative core beliefs practitioners have held about themselves, exploring how these beliefs have developed over time and how they have squashed their capabilities. It is like lifting the fish out of the water allowing it to see what it has been swimming in.

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4 Responses to How can social workers tackle unconscious bias?

  1. Gerald January 6, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    Well put Ellie, we in the Private Care Home Sector have suffered from this for years,thank goodness that the CQC nows seems to be highlighting faillings in the Public Sector so that the there is now a more balanced outlook.

  2. Bernard January 7, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

    Professionals working in social care could benefit greatly from more inspiring and self-reflective analysis presented so clearly in articles like this.

    This would hopefully help each of us to be ‘brutally’ honest and recognise that we all have ‘in-built’ propensity to be: prejudicial, bias and negatively discriminatory in our professional work.

    The challenge as this article points out so well, is for us social care professionals to constantly exercise self-reflection and be prepared to change and improve where required.

  3. Ruth Cartwright January 7, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    A good article with sensible advice and guidance. However, we need our employers to buy into these princioples too and to recognise that we should not be ‘too busy’ for reflection and to give and receive supervision, that having time for these things makes us better and more reslient practitioners.

    • David Prentice January 11, 2015 at 12:36 am #

      Totally agree Ruth. Supervision is not always recognised as essential, integral part of reflective practice. A rental car agency wouldn’t work out their entire business plan then try to squeeze in maintenance as an after-thought.

      Without effective supervision, the work not only diminishes in quality but almost inevitably becomes toxic.