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Unconscious Bias: It Starts With You and Me

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During a recent discussion with a colleague and friend who is a Ph.D. Associate Professor at a highly-esteemed university's School of Management, the prevalence of our unconscious biases slapped us both in the face.

Here is what she shared, "I was recently on a trip with my mom, and she was constantly telling me about her doctor. Saying things like, 'My Dr. this and my Dr. that...' Then she said, 'She told me...' (referring to her doctor). As I'd been listening and imagining my mother's doctor in my mind's eye, not once did I think the doctor was a WOMAN. I automatically thought her doctor was a man. AND I'M A DOCTOR! THAT is unconscious bias. Unconscious biases shape our worldview and our expectations of others. And they're so very prevalent in all of us. The disconcerting fact is that those unconscious biases can be contrary to our conscious beliefs."

America and corporate America will never reach their greatest levels of success unless we find the courage to acknowledge, own and take action to address unconscious biases. Why? These biases cause us to have a certain worldview about others who are different than ourselves. Unconscious biases make us think that the way that we think is best... the right way... the only way.

Where do these unconscious biases come from that we all have? How do we even identify them? And once we do identify them, how and why do we CHANGE them?

First things first: All of us have unconscious biases. According to the Implicit Bias Primer by Jerry Kang, UCLA School of Law Professor, a few of our unconscious biases come from our direct experiences (with other people, events, situations, etc.). However, the majority of our biases (both positive and negative) are based on vicarious experiences (those relayed to us through other people, stories, books, movies, media and culture).

Kang continues by sharing:

One way to find out about bias is simply to ask people. However, in a post-civil rights environment, it has become much less useful to ask explicit questions on sensitive topics. We run into a "willing and able" problem. Many people simply are not willing to tell researchers -- or anyone - what they really feel. They may be chilled by an air of political correctness.

Second, and more important, when it comes to bias, people may not even know what is inside their heads. Indeed, a wealth of cognitive psychology has demonstrated that we are lousy at introspection. For example, slight environmental changes alter our judgments and behavior without our realizing. If the room smells of Lysol, people eat more neatly. People holding a warm cup of coffee (versus a cold cup) ascribe warmer (versus cooler) personality traits to a stranger described in a vignette.

In the workforce, managers are frequently guilty of allowing bias to negatively infiltrate and impact employee engagement, collaboration and even advancement for women and people of color. Most of what you see in corporate America is not blatant racism (although that does occur), but is rather what researchers refer to as...unconscious bias.

How to Identify Negative Unconscious Biases?

Still not sure exactly what negative unconscious biases are? Or maybe you think you don't have any? I'm talking about the following types of unconscious beliefs that infiltrate our society - and, therefore, corporate America:

• Men are better leaders.
• White men are smarter.
• African American men are all good athletes.
• African American women are "angry."
• White women are great trophy wives.
• Women are all on the "mommy track."
• Latino men are lazy.
• Latino females are extremely emotional.
• Asian men are very good at technology.
• Asian females are quiet.
• Native American men are drunks.
• Native American females are submissive.

In 1995, Doctors Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin R. Banaji theorized that it was possible that our social behavior was not completely under our conscious control. Advances in neuroscience and other social sciences have helped us to understand that people can consciously believe in equality while simultaneously acting on subconscious prejudices they are not aware of. (Reading Between the Lines: Uncovering Unconscious Bias Panel, Sept. 30, 2009).

Three years after this theory was born, Dr. Greenwald designed a bias test. The test is referred to as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The purpose of this assessment is to help people understand the dynamics of their personality (including identification of conscious and unconscious biases) and attributes, and it has been widely used in the field of neuropsychology. Remember, the bottom line regarding any test or assessment is that it is only as good as the data that is put into it. Therefore, the more honest we are by making true, heartfelt responses, the richer the output and the learning. You can learn more about the IAT (and take it) HERE.

I challenge you to take the IAT -- today. Why? So you can start touching your truth. Enough of the political correctness... let's tell the truth for a change. The truth is that each of us holds biases, and these biases impact the way that we see people who are different from us.

Once we are each consciously aware and can honestly identify and engage in courageous conversations about our negative unconscious biases, we can then learn ways to talk through, overcome and CHANGE them. We will all benefit from doing this - our careers will benefit, those around us will benefit, our organizations will benefit, our future generations will benefit... and yes, as glib as it sounds, the world will benefit.

It is time. And it starts with you and me.