‘Guerilla Bias’: The Manager’s Hidden Enemy

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Although there still are cases of blatant bias in the workplace, most practitioners believe that the real enemy of diversity is a more subtle, less-conscious kind of discrimination. I like to call them “Guerilla Biases.” Like guerilla warriors who hide in stands of lush foliage, Guerilla Biases lie concealed behind good intentions, kind words, and even thoughtful acts. They are based on the perverse premise that all women, emerging groups, people with disabilities, and those who are outside the so-called “majority” population are to some degree fragile, quick to explode, or in need of special treatment. This way of thinking can lead managers to do and say a variety of things that seriously compromise an organization’s diversity efforts. Guerilla Bias Jungle

When I was conducting research for my book, Making Diversity Work, Roger Ackerman, former Chairman and CEO of Corning, Inc., called attention to one particularly destructive example of Guerilla Bias when he said, “The root of all evil is bad supervisors who give appraisals without being candid.” I would modify his quote just a bit to say, “The root of all evil is biased supervisors who give appraisals without facing their biases.” As Ackerman understood, managers who are afflicted with Guerilla Bias are in danger of pulling their punches when providing feedback to so-called “minority” groups. They are apt to say to themselves that they “want to be nice” or “don’t want to be discouraging” so they fail to provide the coaching needed to help that person succeed.

One reason Guerilla Bias is so destructive is that it is difficult to spot. Here’s an example that went initially undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated.  It involves a Latino bank manager whom I’ll call Hector. Hector’s story initially sounds like an acceptable example of cultural accommodation, but, when looked at more closely, turns out to be a classic case of guerilla bias run rampant. Hector had worked for this bank since college and was very successful as the manager of a branch in a middle-class, largely non-Hispanic white community. All this changed when the company decided that, because of his Latino heritage, Hector would be perfect to manage a new branch situated in a neighborhood largely populated with Mexican immigrants. Unfortunately, Hector felt very uncomfortable in the new assignment and, when last heard from, was thinking of taking his considerable talents to a competitive bank.

Hector, by the way, was one of five Latino branch managers who approached me with this identical complaint. Each was promising and bright and each was ready to quit because of the bias his manager had against him. That bias went like this: “All Latinos are familiar with Latino culture, speak Spanish, and would regard it as an honor to work with ‘their own.’” Hector, if given the chance, would dispute this generality by saying something like, “There’s more to me than having Mexican grandparents, I barely understand much less speak Spanish, and, quite frankly, the culture just doesn’t interest me much.”

Of course, other Latinos might have felt differently, but it was Hector  who was transferred. The problem lay less in that transfer and more in the fact that his manager’s bias kept her too busy focusing on blind cultural accommodation to see Hector as a valued individual with unique interests and unique skills.

How to Defeat Guerilla Bias:

In Making Diversity Work, I outline seven steps for defeating bias. Beginning with “Bias Mindfulness” and ending with strategies for beating back biases that re-occur, each step is based on the following principles:

1. Any effort to defeat bias must be truly inclusive.  In order to assess if this criterion is being met, ask yourself this question: Am I holding members of every group – not just white males – to an equally high standard when it comes to bias and respectful behavior? If the answer is “no,” you are in danger of generating more bias in your workplace by creating the impression that members of emerging groups are receiving preferential treatment.

2. Any effort to defeat bias must include a mandate to hold everyone to the same high standard of performance. This brings us back to Guerilla Bias and the example of managers who refuse to coach members of emerging groups out of fear of hurting their feelings or appearing biased. A truly bias-free and diversity-friendly workplace demands that everyone – regardless of background – be given the respect they deserve. There is no better way to do this than to expect the very best from every employee.  Excessive accommodation leads, not only to diminished self-esteem, but to an atmosphere of resentment – a sure-fire way to reduce the functionality of diverse teams.

3.  Any effort to defeat bias must, of course, honor differences, but – more importantly – needs to focus on and highlight what we share.  In the book, I coin the phrase “kinship group.” A “kinship group” is “any population that shares a self- or externally-ascribed characteristic that sets it apart from others.” This characteristic might be a disability, race, gender, age or any other of dozens of human dimensions. A “kinship group” is, in short, our common ground. The virtue in this concept is that it allows each of us to belong to many groups at once depending on the characteristic on which we focus. It also, and this is the best part, enables us to broaden our group to include many populations that we previously thought of as different from ourselves.

One of the many advantages of sharing a kinship group is that once we identify with a particular population, members of that group are transformed in our minds from “them” to “us.” When this happens, we automatically begin to evaluate members of that group more fairly. This is because human beings have a tendency to give their own “kind” a break. When members of the group with which we identify do something bad, we figure it is because of circumstances; if they do something good, it is because of character. When, on the other hand, people from another group do something bad, it is because of character; if they do something good, it is because of circumstances.

This dubious reasoning created problems at a bank in New York where the Vietnamese-born manager complained that her Puerto Rican tellers didn’t grasp procedures as fast as the Vietnamese. “I suppose it’s just that they have a different attitude toward learning [character,] she said. When asked if she ever had any Vietnamese who learned slowly, she said, “It’s different with the Vietnamese. It’s not that they don’t want to learn; it’s just that they live in such close quarters with their families that they don’t always get enough sleep. Sometimes they come to work so tired they can’t think.  They do make mistakes from time to time, but, under those conditions, who can blame them [circumstance]?” She said nothing about a differing attitude toward learning or any other character trait.

There are many ways in which kinship groups can be redefined and broadened. One of the most straight-forward is to be creative in our definition of affinity groups. Rather than think strictly in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual orientation, why not – in addition to these valuable categories – create groups along the lines of function, interest, or life challenges? Affinity groups, for example, who share elder-care responsibilities will end up having members of all races and will, therefore, help each members begin to focus more on commonalities (elder-care obligations) than on the fact that they are racially different. Other strategies to create new kinship groups include the setting of common goals – those goals become in essence a new kinship group, the seeking of shared values, and exercises designed to increase empathy and an awareness of shared emotions and experiences.

No matter what approach is taken to the reduction of bias, the key to keep in mind is that biases – even, or especially, those Guerilla Biases that appear benign on the surface – are destructive and must be destroyed if we are to achieve productive, harmonious, and respectful workplaces.

The material in this article is based on Sondra Thiederman’s book, Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace and on her video training package, Is It Bias?: Making Diversity Work.

Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.

© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Feel free to re-print as long as copyright and web site (www.thiederman.com) information is attached.


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