- By Ernest Hoffman
It has happened to every one of us.
Every one of us has passed by a colleague in the hall, or sat in a meeting, or networked with a prospective business partner when we noticed that something about the way we were being treated was different. Perhaps it was the way they looked right past you and spoke to one of your colleagues as if you were not in the room. Or the way they quickly moved past any points you raised without giving them close attention. It could have been even more subtle; someone checking their watch or phone repetitively throughout their time with you. Or nervous laughter whenever you spoke. Or an “innocent” remark that felt like it was anything but innocent, such as “in my experience…” or even “I hear what you’re saying, but.” The roots of unconscious bias run far deeper and are often more subtle than the tragic instances of unfair treatment we read about in the news. Every one of us has fallen victim to another professional treating us like we were somehow “less than” on the basis of our race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social status.
The harder truth to accept is that we have also been the reason it has happened to others. Simply raising this possibility creates all sorts of resistance within us. And feeling resistant makes it all the more difficult for us to do the difficult work of showing up in a way that values each person and what they bring to the table. We have found that a helpful place to start is with the realization that unconscious bias is not what you think.
Why It’s Not What You Think
Decades of research on the way our brains work has converged on two ways we process information. The first is very controlled and intentional, and it drives the measured responses we give. A strategic approach, for instance, requires us to carefully assess the situation, who is involved, and which response option has the highest likelihood of an outcome we would define as successful. This requires a lot of mental horsepower and we are limited in terms of capacity, so in many cases, our brain opts to take a shortcut. This is often referred to as automatic processing. It works much quicker than controlled processing, and becomes useful when we’re trying to be efficient or when we feel like there’s an immediate threat that needs to be addressed. The tradeoff to making quick decisions is that we lose control over what factors into those decisions. Our brain relies on patterns and associations that have been deeply ingrained in us from our earliest years, and this includes unconscious biases that we have accumulated along the way.
In numerous studies measuring views toward people representing different races, genders, and age cohorts, participants were prompted to complete two measures; one that assessed their conscious opinions (e.g., a standard survey) and one that could assess their unconscious opinions (e.g., an Implicit Association Test). The results were alarming; they indicated that what we think about these topics at a conscious or controlled level is not the same as what we think about them at an unconscious or automatic level.
If It’s Not What You Think, What is It?
From an early age, we are inundated with information about other people and our environment. To avoid getting overwhelmed, our brain creates categories that can help us sort this information in meaningful ways. In some ways this is very helpful to us – we handle a call with a customer differently than we handle a call with a child or spouse because we have created different categories for these conversations. But in other ways, these categories limit us by causing us to over-generalize and draw inaccurate conclusions. For instance, many have contended that the glass ceiling effect, whereby women have traditionally struggled to ascend into senior leadership roles, is rooted in our early exposure to leaders who are predominantly male. A linkage is then created in our brain between “male” and “leader” and it takes a significant amount of controlled processing for our brains to undo the connection and create an exception.
Our brains are making these connections behind the scenes throughout our development. We have little control over what gets linked together, especially in those years when we do not have choice over what we experience. Yet it’s these connections that drive the way we act and make decisions when (a) threat seems minimal so we’re trying to be efficient or (b) when threat seems high so we’re trying to protect ourselves.
The unfortunate news is that in many ways, the connections we have made that feed unconscious bias were created without our consent. However, there is also good news; we are equally capable of overriding these unhelpful patterns in the short-term. And through intentional practice and reinforcement, we can even train our brains to create less-biased patterns in the long-term.
A critical first step in making this happen is to raise our patterns of unconscious bias up to a higher level of conscious awareness.
Raising Consciousness Through Self-Awareness
Numerous tools exist that can assist you in uncovering your unconscious biases. During PRADCO’s workshops on unconscious bias, we step participants through these tools and facilitate a process of self-discovery that, at times, can be somewhat uncomfortable. To guide people through this process, we use the following three-step approach that has come to define our role as consultants across our many product offerings:
- Awareness – Using various types of assessment and feedback, we identify areas of strength and opportunities for development.
- Acceptance – Awareness cannot lead to action until we are willing to accept and own the hard truth of what assessments and feedback are telling us. Sometimes our role as consultants is to keep people accountable and push them towards acceptance.
- Action – Using coaching and group development, we assist people in behaving their way into a better, more effective reality that facilitates their success and, ultimately, the success of their organizations.
For a topic as loaded as unconscious bias, step 2 is almost always most challenging. In many cases, getting someone to accept their own unconscious bias starts with our own willingness to model transparency and ownership around the patterns that get in our way when it comes to giving people the equal treatment and respect they deserve.
Raising Consciousness Through Development
PRADCO offers two distinct workshops that were developed to assist organizations in raising consciousness around the topic of unconscious bias.
One workshop is a general introduction to unconscious bias, and it is designed for people in all industries at all levels of the organization. In this workshop, participants become familiar with unconscious bias, where it comes from, and how it differs from the conscious beliefs they have about people. Through a series of exercises, participants observe their own unconscious bias in action, then practice using tools that can assist them in managing it effectively.
The second workshop is designed for managers and leaders who have the added responsibility of monitoring for unconscious bias and bringing it to people’s attention when it impacts the relationships employees have with customers and colleagues. These can be tough conversations to have, so this workshop integrates tools for delivering difficult feedback and coaching with an introduction to unconscious bias. Participants also practice detecting unconscious bias when others are unknowingly exhibiting it.
These workshops provide a starting point for cultivating an environment of awareness, acceptance, and action within your team or organization.
At PRADCO, we have the experience, drive, and tools to be your partner in hiring and developing talent. We’ll take the time to learn about your organization and customize solutions for you. We’re ready to help you hire and promote with confidence. If you’re ready to get started, let’s talk.