The first step to solving a problem is accepting that the problem exists.
We can’t solve a problem unless we know we have it. Makes sense doesn’t it? But what about when we don’t know there’s a problem? This is the case with bias. The term bias, and the often discussed unconscious bias, is something of a hot topic at the moment. From the racist incidents in Starbucks to the homophobic comments over at Cross Fit HQ it’s something that, sadly, we see plenty of examples of. I’d like to think that most of us don’t have those massively hurtful opinions of the people around us, but does that mean that we aren’t actually biased? In actual fact, we all have biases, and for many that fact sits uncomfortably. Nobody wants to think that they hold pre-formulated opinions of other, but in reality that’s exactly how our brains work.
Our brains are lazy. If we only ever see female nurses and male fire fighters in the media, and families consisting of a male-female couple, our brains will be programmed to take this as the norm – anything that deviates from this norm feels surprising, or at worst threatening and disturbing. We can’t view every person we meet with a 100% blank slate, it would take way too long. Instead our brain makes judgements based on what we can immediately see, alongside the information we hold as truths. These are heavily influenced by our life experiences and, of course, the media. Sometimes we recognise when this happens, and challenge it to avoid it having a negative effect – we might momentarily be surprised to see a male midwife, or a police officer wearing a hajib because this is new to our brains, but we accept this as something different to our preconceptions, adjust what we “know to be true” about midwives or police officers (or indeed about men or Muslim women) and the bias stops there.
If only it was that simple!
I played football all the way through university, but even I recently found myself to be biased against women in sport.
Watch this video. What are your thoughts?
Why is this video funny? Why shouldn’t this woman be better at tricks compared to these men? Would we react the same way if the “assistant” was male?
Chances are that we wouldn’t because we have an unconscious bias that men are better at football. It’s not entirely our fault. The majority of conversation around football relates to men so our brains are programmed to treat this as the norm. Unless we have the awareness to challenge that, why would we think any differently? (Please do check out the TEDTalk by Kristen Pressner and the #FlipItToTestIt message she gives – great way to uncover some of our biases)
But what happens when we’re blind to our bias? Look around at the people you work with, look at the people you have recruited. Are there signs of Similarity Bias? Is your office filled with people like you? People who feel the same as you, maybe they progressed through their career down a similar path to you? Maybe they have the same qualifications, educational or cultural background as you? By recruiting people like us we feel safe, we feel we understand them better, they give us validation and our brains don’t have to learn anything new. But what will happen is our business will suffer. Lack of diversity makes us weak and unable to adapt quickly. (Imagine having a team full of you, same strengths, but also same weaknesses. Our biases make that, to a lesser extent of course, a possibility)
A bias I spent a lot of time challenging in managers I work with was once explained to me as the “Frank Sinatra Bias” – the issue of people not doing things your way. When we are mentor or train people, and they then go on to find a new way of doing things it can sit uneasily. Because they didn’t do it “my way” our brains have to learn a new way to think about it. We may feel like we’re losing control, or that the person wasn’t paying attention when we were training them; we might take it personally or assume that they don’t respect us. We might unconsciously find fault with it, or just feel frustrated with them not following the instructions we’ve given – in actual fact they have come up with their own way of doing it which doesn’t fit your idea of the norm and that is what is actually sitting uncomfortably with you. This bias of the best way being our way, can really hinder development, motivation and creativity in the workplace.
So how do we move on from this?
Awareness is the essential first step. Just knowing that this happens, and that are brains are lazy sometimes, can help a great deal. Collaborate and surround yourself with people who are different to you. You can easily see biases in other people, and vice versa, and the more we learn about others, the less our biases will effect us. Challenge your own perceptions, and others around you. Think about the opposite (Kristen Pressner ‘s #FlipItToTestIt) – if you saw or did the opposite, how would that sit with you? For example, if there was a man in that football video, would it be as funny? Probably not, which shines a light on our bias.
Model and embrace difference and diversity, and allow creativity and unbiased work to flourish.