Bias Reduction / Diversity / Inclusion / Dialogue / Common Ground
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A bias is an “inflexible positive or negative, conscious or unconscious belief about a particular category of people.” For purposes of my work, I use “bias” to encompass what most people think of as “stereotypes” and “prejudices” as well as that long list of “isms” that plague our workplaces on a daily basis. From sexism to racism to ageism and lookism, bias is a problem we all share.
The tricky thing about biases is that they can be about good or bad qualities. It is as biased to assume, “All Asians are good at math” as it is to believe “All men are sexist.” Whether a good generality or bad, biases are characterized by an inflexibility that leaves the target of the bias inaccurately perceived and, in most cases, badly misunderstood.
Yes, fortunately there is. The lucky thing about biases is that even the ones that are initially unconscious aren’t very good at staying hidden. All but the most deeply buried reveal their existence at one time or another. There are three primary ways to become aware of our unconscious biases.
- Begin to notice the first assumption that pops into your mind when encountering someone different from yourself. That thought might be a clue to a hidden bias.
- Take the Implicit Association Test by clicking here. Although the test is not intended as a definitive diagnosis of bias, it is a powerful first step.
- Observe your own behaviors and decision-making processes as they involve different groups. Do you notice any consistent reactions that seem to be linked to what you believe to be the nature of that group? If so, you just might have a bias on your hands.
Yes – all but the most deeply hidden biases (and even those under some circumstances) can be fixed or, at the very least, managed more effectively. Although, there isn’t enough room here to go into all the details, here are the types of elements that can be brought to bear to the bias reduction process:
- Dissecting the bias to reveal its weak foundation.
- Exposing oneself to media and images that carry a counter-bias message (this, by the way, can be very effective at reducing unconscious bias).
- Spending time with a variety of people from diverse groups. This time is most effective at reducing bias if it is relaxed, appropriately intimate, and goal oriented.
- Deliberately acting as if the bias does not exists (“attitude follows behavior”).
- Identify what you have in common with groups otherwise different from yourself (“Common Ground”).
By definition, biases thrive when we focus on the fact that an individual is a member of a group different from our own (Gay versus straight; men versus women; old versus young). That’s because, when we focus on difference, we’re in danger of becoming preoccupied with the characteristic – the bias – we associate with that difference.
What would happen, though, if we minimize our focus on difference – the very thing that gives the bias its reason for being – and focus more on what we have in common? The answer is, the bias would be starved for fuel and begin to fade.
Of course, just to be clear, it is imperative that we don’t let identifying what we have in common distract us from valuing differences – we need them both if we are to create and sustain inclusive workplaces.
Dialogue is crucial if we are to reduce bias and create inclusive workplaces. Sadly, conversations about diversity don’t happen as often as they should. This is because we lack the skills needed to have those conversations with respect and honesty. Because we don’t have the skills, we are afraid to try.
In order to increase dialogue, we must expose our teams to skills including:
- How to set productive goals for conversations.
- When it is appropriate to speak up and when it is wiser to walk away.
- How to overcome the emotions that stifle our ability to think on our feet and communicate effectively.
- What words to use that will promote rather than hinder conversation.
- How to think about intent versus impact and the importance of assuming positive intent in another’s actions or words.