Bias has become a common topic of conversation in today’s culture. Many people approach “Bias” from a negative perspective, believing that all bias is caused by ignorance, bigotry and hatred and that we should try to remove bias from every situation. Some even go so far as to believe it’s possible to lobotomize the “bias” out of people, often proclaiming that they themselves are unbiased in this belief.
But why should we care to talk about bias? Why should we work to become more aware of our biases and behaviors? How can we become aware of how our bias and the behaviors help or hinder positive transformative relationships, performances and services?
We can begin to find and answer these questions in several ways. We can:
- Acknowledge and study the relationship between brain function and bias, and the myriad types of bias that exist. There are scientists, psychologists, analysts and many others who present that information in delightfully engaging and exciting ways.
- Take tests and assessments, which may be helpful and can serve as awareness builders and discussion starters.
- Build relationships of trust that establish or increase the resources of people who serve each other as Bias Coaches.
Four basic steps that I recommend for successfully approaching the subject are:
Understand what we’re talking about.
What is bias? How do we define it? The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it this way:
Bias: Inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.
Preferences For or Against—Bias can be both aversion and affection, having both negative and positive behaviors and impacts
We’re all biased
That includes you and me too. Ok, stop reading and take a couple of deep, calming breaths if you need to. It’s not uncommon for people to react negatively or deny that they have bias, particularly because of the unfortunate stigma and negative bias towards bias that has dominated conversations for years. Consequently, our defenses arise because most of us don’t want to be labeled as some kind of negative “ist” person. (Ex: sexist, racist, classist, etc.)
The problem is, if we live in a world where we’re so afraid to face, admit and talk respectfully with one another about our biases, how can we become more aware of and ensure no one falls victim to them?
Being biased doesn’t mean we’re “bad” or “good” people, it just means we’re people. Just breathe for a minute. Take that in. And when you’re ready, I invite you to continue reading.
We’re not aware of all of our biases.
I have a number of what I call “Bias Coaches.” We help each other become aware of our biases and the behaviors and impacts that follow. I have lots of positive and negative biases that I’m now aware of.
For instance, I’m a musician; a dramatic soprano. I love and am excited by the music I hear in rich vocal tones and the music and rhythm of accents different from mine. For years, I was unaware that when I chose people as team members at work, I chose people (behavior) that I thought it would be nice to sing with (bias). I would have gleefully continued building teams and important friendships with this delightful, but limited, sample of people if someone that I respected had not brought it to my attention. In this instance, my Bias Coach presented her observations with respect and without judgment.
After our discussion, I saw that, while I hadn’t intentionally excluded, had bad thoughts about or said bad things about the people I couldn’t sing with or attend a production with, the facts were that I preferred people that met that criteria. The people I spent time building relationships with, found most interesting, and admired most met those two simple criteria. I argued that they had the talents, skills, experience, etc., that were needed to get the job done. And, they did! But what about the others I may have missed? The ones that I unconsciously refused to even consider because they didn’t push my “co-performer button?”
This was a positive bias that was having a negative, limiting impact on team and organizational performance. Yikes! And to be honest, I also have some biases that are not as charming as music, but unless you’re a musician or musical aficionado, I probably won’t share those with you. KIDDING!
Our biases are earned and learned.
Our biases are formed through the positive and negative experiences that we have or the experiences, beliefs and values of others we respect and are influenced by. This includes revered cultural norms, verbal and non-verbal messages that we receive, and messages that bombard us repeatedly in the media. Our biases are rooted in our beliefs and values, all of which complement and drive each other, intertwined with our needs for safety, belonging and success. And this is partly why we argue for our biases – as we discover what they are. We believe that they are correct and ”the right thing to do” because, after all, we are good people.
Well, as one of the “good people” who has biases, I encourage you to think about how you can learn about your own biases in ways that respect, value and honor you and your positive intentions as well as others. And remember, one of the first steps on the journey of self-discovery is looking within.