The WORK & Abilities Blog

The blog for work inclusion professionals!

Cognitive Bias and Support


The simple word “bias” already evokes several images in our minds. It conjures up thoughts and emotions even over these few lines of text. We all have the mysterious ability to analyze beyond just the present. For example, certain people say that Napoleon Bonaparte’s intuition or sixth sense refers to his alleged ability to assess a situation with just one glance. Others speak of the power of thinking without thinking. It allows us to grasp many aspects of a situation in a few seconds. Is this kind of understanding always right? Does it always reflect reality?

Cognitive or Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases are mental shortcuts that we take involuntarily and which allow us to make quick judgments about a variety of inputs that we cannot consciously analyze in an efficient way.”Hubert Makwanda

One advantage of these shortcuts is that they save us time. One disadvantage is that we act based on previous experiences, assumptions or stereotypes.

What about cognitive bias in the work of employment integration professionals? How can bias affect the professional-client relationship? How can we become more aware of it and minimize its impact?

The Client

During the first meetings with a client, several factors already affect the exchange. Clients may have had similar previous experiences which can positively or negatively influence their involvement in the process. A member of their family or their friend’s may have benefited from a similar service and they may be influenced by their experiences. Any type of perception of the professional or the organization will also impact the professional/client relationship, so it’s importance to take into consideration the client’s vision and perceptions. Inquiring about past experiences and client expectations can go a long way in helping professionals better understand the participant and identify the different biases associated with the situation. The information attained will make it possible to base the support process on validated facts, thus reducing the risk of a generalization bias that could hinder the process.

The Professional

As far as professionals are concerned, experience and intuition helps develop client relationships and acts as guide in their efforts. However, professionals must deal with biases, because they can find their way into client relationships. Are our actions based on the client’s reality or are they based on our biased beliefs and perceptions? How do we improve our support?

The first step in the improvement process is realizing that we are not perfect. We don’t have absolute control over our behaviour and ideas. Our reactions are observable and help us better understand each other as individuals. In order to better understand them, I propose a Harvard University objective test, the Implicit Association Test. The results can be a little disturbing, because even if we advocate consciously the idea that everyone is equal, we all have unconscious preferences or reservations. They can arise during interaction with clients. Questioning and analyzing your support strategies will help you confirm whether they are based on your client’s reality.

Awareness of our cognitive biases is already a big step in evaluating our support. Trying to alter or correct our unconscious biases is much more difficult; for, they are based on our individual and collective experiences. To change them we can diversify our experiences. Develop the reflex to have experiences in a variety of contexts and with different people, from all backgrounds and conditions. Remain interested in one area and in another person’s point of view or story in that area. If you are interested in politics, read Jean Chrétien’s biography, as well as the summary of Barack Obama’s two terms. If you are more the sporty type, after watching the Olympic Games follow the Paralympics. Diversify your experiences!

To summarize, our brains allows us a level of analysis essential for understanding our environment. Cognitive biases help us simplify our observations and experiences. The important thing is to be aware of them, for you and your client’s sake to reduce possible discrimination and improve our support.

To learn more

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2007. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Ridgley, Stanley K. 2012. Strategic Thinking Skills.

Solve Talks at Google: Uncovering Hidden Biases – YouTube. 2016. Solve MIT.

Judge, Timothy A., and Daniel M. Cable. 2004. “The Effect of Physical Height on Workplace Success and Income: Preliminary Test of a Theoretical Model.”

A collaboration of Étienne Légaré, member of l’Association québécoise des professionnels du développement de carrière (Quebec Association of Career Development professionals)

Want to learn more about work integration for people in a situation of professional disability?
Subscribe to our newsletter by clicking on this link.

Need support for your clients?
Do not hesitate to contact SPHERE.