Recently, I’ve been hearing story after story about missteps that senior leaders made that shut down the productivity and engagement of their most valuable staff members. One of the patterns I’m noticing is the leader’s inability to recognize his or her own bias, otherwise known as “unconscious bias”:
Unconscious (or implicit) biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behavior.
Unconscious bias makes us believe we are making decisions about an individual’s capabilities, professionalism, or ability to contribute based on rational details when in reality, these are based on our personal preferences.
We all carry unconscious biases with us (gender, age, race, sexual orientation, disability, etc). The key is to be aware that you have them and ensure you are continually asking yourself if you are missing a perspective.
Here’s a link to a series of quizzes you can take to help identify your own implicit biases. By completing this process, you are also helping to support research on implicit bias at Harvard University.
If you don’t create awareness of your own implicit biases, I guarantee that you are alienating someone on your team or in your organization. The main pattern I’ve been seeing in my recent work is gender bias, specifically a bias against women by male leaders. All of these women are senior-level, and none of them are wallflowers! And though the women are continuously talking about their experience of bias in the workplace, it is only occasionally that I hear men (quietly and privately) voice their concern over a leader who appears biased against the women on his team.
What I find fascinating is that my 13-year-old son is also dealing with unconscious bias against females. He recently told me a story of a male teacher who he believes is clearly favoring the boys over the girls and it really is bothering him. (We are discussing how to address it).
In other words, unconscious bias is all around us. But what are we doing about it?
I can tell you that it takes a great deal of courage to address such a sensitive and nuanced topic. Here are three ways to bring it up with a spirit of growth and collaboration (rather than attacking the other person or making them “wrong”).
- Identify your own potential biases and decision-making patterns. Consider how your own implicit biases may play out in the workplace. How does unconscious bias affect who you invite to meetings, who you speak with more easily, and whose opinions influence your decisions? I recommend that everyone visit the website LeanIn.org and take a look at their Bias Cards. It’s an illuminating way to identify personal bias that you may not even realize you have, so you can notice it and make a better-informed choice.
- Seek to understand. When identifying a negative bias that you may have, make a conscious effort to learn more about the idea, individual, or group to understand how and why it makes you uncomfortable. Gaining insight into the underlying emotion can be helpful in removing some of its power.
- Have a courageous conversation. Male or female, if you see biases in action and stay silent, how can the leader ever understand the impact their behavior and decisions have on you and the team? If you won’t take a stand, who will? Who better than you to professionally and constructively point out the patterns to the senior leader? You can do this effectively by sharing a specific example of something the leader said or did, and explaining the impact you experienced as a result. Finally, give the leader an idea of what to do instead. What behavior would have impacted you positively rather than negatively?
The tricky thing about unconscious bias is that we cannot see it until we see it, which means that unless someone names it, it will remain hidden. We all have a responsibility to not only identify our own personal bias, but to help others see theirs, as well.
This conversation takes courage. There’s a risk involved. And on the other side of that risk is the potential for positive change that could impact you, your co-workers, the leader, and all the employees who are coming up behind you.
Photo Source: SkillJunction.com