The commitment to creating inclusive and culturally competent organizations is more relevant than ever. Workforce, workplace, and marketplace issues, all create an indisputable business case for why organizations should pay attention to how race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and identities should be managed so that all employees can be successful, contributing members of their organizations.
In order to ensure this in an increasingly diverse workplace, leaders must learn to be more inclusive. Creating more effective, inclusive leaders and anti-bias work have been synonymous for decades. For years, many people have accepted the assumption that if people in positions of power and authority can learn not to be biased, then they will be able to treat everyone with a greater sense of equity and inclusion. And yet, despite the fact that most leaders see the importance of a
lack of bias, we still struggle with attempting to create truly inclusive and culturally competent organizations.
There is a reason for this frustration: it is not possible to eliminate all bias because human beings need it to survive.
People go out in the world every day and make decisions about what is safe or not, what is appropriate or not, and so on. This automatic decision-making is what has been called a danger detector that determines whether or not something or someone is safe before the mind can even begin to consciously make a determination.
When we assess an object, animal, or person to be dangerous, a fight or flight fear response occurs. On a conscious level, people may correct a mistake in this danger detector when they notice it. More often, however, we simply generate reasons to explain and justify our thoughts and actions. People are generally convinced that their decisions are rational. In reality, a substantial majority of human decisions is based on visceral feelings and emotions. Facts and evidence are later generated to justify our actions. When people sense danger, their sense of comfort or discomfort has already been engaged.
From a survival standpoint, this is not a negative trait. This process is necessary and hardwired. Earlier in human history, determining if a hostile animal or person was coming up the path behind us may have triggered a life or death decision. The mind has evolved to make these decisions very quickly, often before thinking about it. And it is quite universal. As Brett Pelham, Program Officer for Social Psychology at the National Science Foundation, has said, “Virtually all bias is unconscious bias. We have learned to trust women to be nurturing and men to be powerful, for example, in much the same way that Pavlov’s puppies trusted ringing bells to predict the arrival of meat powder. If we had to think consciously about keeping our balance, digesting, breathing and perceiving the moon as a celestial sphere rather than a floating coin, we would all fall over, throw up, suffocate and fail to appreciate the moon’s majestic beauty. Being biased is how we get through life without evaluating everything afresh every time we experience it.”
Through the advent of remarkable, new testing technologies, we are able to determine that these decisions play out in hundreds of ways. Studies have shown that people are more often selected to many corporate positions because they are taller; that people select politicians in seconds, based on appearance; that being right-handed inclines us to make choices on our right side more times than not; that people are less likely to believe other people if they have an accent that is different from theirs; that people with darker skin earn less money; that doctors are more likely to prescribe certain procedures to certain groups of people; and that women and people of color get stretch opportunities less frequently than white men. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are literally dozens of other studies that demonstrate the same phenomena.
Why does it happen? Our fundamental way of encountering the world is driven by this hardwired pattern of making unconscious decisions, and that includes our reactions to the people we work with every day.
Scientists estimate that people are exposed to as many as 11 million pieces of information at any one time, but the brain can only functionally deal with about 40. We all develop a unique perceptual lens that filters out certain things and lets certain others in. Our filters depend upon certain perceptions, interpretations, and preferences and, yes, biases, that have evolved during our lifetimes. We also selectively react to certain things that we tend to believe because they have a certain sticking power to our consciousness. Exceptions to our beliefs are easy to ignore or forget, hence our biases are reinforced.
As a result of these pre-established filters, all of us—yes, all—see and hear things, and interpret them differently than another might. Or we might not even see them at all! In fact, our interpretations may be so far off that we might question, “How do I know what is real anyway?”
In organizational life, this decision-making process impacts the choices that leaders make in recruiting, hiring, promoting, mentoring, assigning work, marketing, giving performance reviews, and providing customer service. It also impacts business strategy and virtually all communications.
This is the challenge facing chief learning officers and diversity practitioners. Historically, organizational learning, personal development, and diversity work have been built upon an architecture of addressing conscious beliefs and behaviors. The notion in anti-bias efforts has always been that, if we can eradicate bias, then people will be treated with equity and inclusion. The unfortunate result of this approach is that it puts people into the position of feeling wrong or guilty for something that is completely normal and human. As a result, we look for excuses for our behavior, or simply do not see it, rather than being willing to see and acknowledge our blind spots.
Is this situation hopeless? Fortunately, not. But what may be hopeless is simply trying to talk ourselves out of our bias or trying to politically correct ourselves out of our bias. In fact, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, the pathway to overcoming bias begins by accepting the normalcy of it. When we accept that we have normal biases, it becomes much easier to observe how they may be impacting our decisions or reactions. Accepting personal biases makes them less, not more likely to impact others. If we know, for example, that we have a bias towards a particular kind of person, then rather than beating ourselves up or compensating, we should simply become aware of the bias and observe where it might impact our behavior and then modify that behavior.
Similarly, this knowledge has allowed us to develop the capacity to understand our organizations in more sophisticated ways. By learning to observe the unconscious patterns of organizational behavior, we are now able to identify organizational patterns that get in the way of growth and success and transform them.
What this calls for is a fundamentally different way to approach organizational learning. It calls for diminishing the tendency to feel guilty or shameful. Instead, we need to understand that the unconscious mind is malleable. We can train people, and ourselves, to become more conscious about our fear impulses and pause before we decide or act. As psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.”
We can also begin to create organizational cultures that become more conscious of the choices we make and the way we make decisions. Certain structures and processes have been found to help encourage this kind of higher consciousness in ways that have profound impact on people and business decisions.
The bottom line? Chief learning officers must proactively address an uncomfortable reality. We have biases just like everyone else. Our charge going forward is to be leaders in communicating to others that we are aware of our biases. Each of us can show that we are committed to challenging ourselves to overcome the kinds of bias that interfere with our fairness, effectiveness, and productivity, and, in doing so, increase the development of people, purpose, and performance in our organizational cultures.
**Originally published at The Smart Manager