Waking Up to Our Unconscious Bias

Jul 14, 2017

I approached a breakout session at a recent conference and felt immediately uncomfortable.  I was struck by a desire to turn around and find another session to attend. I felt unsure, out of place, suddenly less than the person I believe myself to be.  What was the perceived threat generating an instinctive desire to flee?  Someone different from me – in this case, it was a minor difference of physiology and language – the presenter was a deaf woman.

This is the insidious power of unconscious bias.  After a powerful session earlier in the day on power and culture my eyes were open to my own relationship to identity and bias, I recognized the instinctive desire to leave but consciously chose to stay and find a seat instead–to open my mind both to the presenter’s message and my personal opportunity to examine and face my bias.  It turned out to be one of the best sessions I attended both for the content, and more importantly, for the way her presence and way of engaging with the audience challenged my own biases and opened my heart and mind to someone different than me.

We don’t want to admit our bias.

Unconscious bias is a sensitive subject.  Admitting it affects us forces us to examine parts of ourselves we may not like; to acknowledge how it limits the way we relate to others, our view of the world and ultimately our ability to lead and to achieve the impact we want to have in our organizations, communities and the world.

Facing our biases often requires a journey though the difficult emotions of fear and shame as we look honestly at who we are in order to step closer to who we want to be.  Jennifer Brown in her book, Inclusion, says that “In today’s fast-changing world, organizational leaders will need to do some fresh soul searching, reevaluating much of what they’ve built their leadership identities upon – as well as see other people differently, more deeply, and more accurately – and most importantly, how they want to be seen.”

What is the source of our fear?

Survival instinct is at the root of this tribal behavior.  Like me equals safe, different equals dangerous.  Like it or not, the amygdala (our primitive survival brain) is hard-wired to look for danger in the form of differences. My friend and colleague Howard Ross, in his book Everyday BIAS, describes it this way:

“In real time being able to make quick determinations about the people we encounter and the situations we are in is critical to our survival. It is built into the fundamental way our brains function. Social identification is especially important because picking up social cues about the circumstances we are in not only helps us be successful, but more importantly it keeps us safe. However, what we think we may see may not clearly be happening at all.”

Add to our ancestry and biology a lack of exposure to people who are different from us, cultural messages, and the influence of people around us – it is no wonder we limit our worlds to what is familiar, understood and safe – it gives us a sense of control. However, these unexamined biases limit our ability to lead in the complex, interconnected, global world in which we now live and work.

What are we missing?

As leaders we risk much by not examining our unconscious biases and those of our organization.  Unconscious biases in the workplace can undermine diversity, recruiting, retention, engagement, collaboration and innovation. Biases can be based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, weight, introversion, extroversion, past experiences and much more. If we unconsciously organize the world around us so as to avoid our biases we limit our ability to build trusting relationships, work effectively with others and create organizations that bring out the best in others and ourselves.  Our leadership is based on limited vision and we miss critical information.  We create a culture where bias is visible and ignored, causing the targets of that bias to begin to predict it, to limit themselves and mute their own voices in defense against the exclusion and isolation they experience.

So, what can we do?

Courageously face yourself.

The starting point for any leadership transformation is having the courage to face oneself. This is true when it comes to our biases as well. Face it, if you are human, you have biases; it doesn’t make you bad, it makes you human. With this in mind it is critical for leaders to develop the capacity for self-reflection and examination. Tools such as the Implicit Bias Test at Project Implicit are a good way to  begin to raise your awareness about your biases.  Start to pay attention to your reactions and judgments and notice what the thinking is beneath the reaction.

Luek and Gibson in a study in 2015 examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on implicit age and race bias. They described mindfulness meditation as a method to “view thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally as mental events, rather than as part of the self.”  The social benefits of mindfulness meditation are based on the idea that nonjudgmental reflection has the potential to reduce cognitive bias. In their study they found that participants in mindfulness meditation exhibited a decrease in implicit biases for both age and race.

Be willing to be uncomfortable.

In the example above I recognized my discomfort and rather than allowing it to hijack me and make me leave, I challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone. Howard Ross goes on to say that one of the most effective ways to begin to dis-identify with our biases is through exposure to people and groups we harbor biases against. Calvin Lai and Brian Nosek in a 2014 study found that exposure to counter-stereotypes or exemplars of the particular group in question was one of the most effective ways to re-program people’s biases. This, like any significant growth or change, requires a willingness to step out of our comfort zones for the sake of opening our hearts and minds and creating a more inclusive environment for those around us.

Look at the world through the eyes of another.

A third way to reduce biases and create a culture of greater inclusiveness is through the intentional cultivation of empathy. Lindsey and Hebl in a 2014 study published in The Journal of Business Psychology found that perspective taking positively impacted self-reported behaviors towards lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals. Through their research they concluded that taking the perspective of others may have lasting positive effect on diversity related outcomes by increasing individual’s internal motivation to respond without prejudice. They go on to say that these effects may be powerful for increasing empathy.

What do we gain?

This is difficult and dangerous work, examining our unconscious, known to be dark and uncharted territory.  Even blogging my personal experience on the subject feels risky – and yet without a willingness to recognize our own biases and face them, there can be no growth, we will continue to be ruled and blinded by bias we do not acknowledge.  We will continue to build walls between people rather than bridges and will unintentionally create organizations where some voices are heard and respected while others are marginalized.

We no longer live in a world where we can easily close ourselves off from people who are different than we are. As leaders our colleagues, employees, customers, board members, and share holders represent seen and unseen differences which provide a wealth of insight and perspective to help us navigate a dynamic, complex, fast paced world.

In addition to what I would argue is a moral imperative there is a business case for change. This is our responsibility as leaders.

“The bottom line is that employees and customers are more diverse than ever, and everyone–without exception—wants to feel Welcomed, Valued, Respected, and Heard.  If you use that as your guiding principle, you’ll take the right risk.  But don’t NOT take the risk.  After all…Change doesn’t happen without it.” – Jennifer Brown