How to Overcome Bias

“Preconceived notions are locks on the doors to wisdom.”

Forty years ago, when I was in grade school, I remember learning about the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement. I remember thinking about these recent historical events as struggles that were now resolved, since, surely, everyone would have learned by now to view people as equals. I chuckle thinking of my naivete. I have often wondered, over my thirty year career, if issues of discrimination and bias have really changed or if they ever will.

I believe that the most effective and lasting way to combat bias in an organization is for its members to bring their own personal prejudices to self-awareness. The result? On a micro level, members’ treatment - and enjoyment - of one another will improve. On a macro level, workplace culture will shift toward equality – for all.

Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin found that, “individuals see the existence and operation of cognitive and motivational biases much more in others than in themselves.” I believe once we can tap into our own experiences of bias, we are more likely to appreciate the bias others experience – and change our own behavior accordingly.

Years ago, when I was a new driver, I parked in a handicapped space on the assumption that there was no chance that a disabled person would actually need it while I ran quickly in and out of the store. However, when I emerged from the store only two minutes later, a disabled man was standing there. I will never forget the frustration and anger in his face while he proceeded to tell me how difficult it is, every day, for him to get in and out of buildings without encountering some kind of a struggle. My cavalier approach to his experience only made his struggle worse.

I felt like a horrible person. However, was I a horrible person? No. Failing to view the situation from another’s perspective certainly caused me to act in a horrible way with horrible consequences but I never intended on hurting anybody. I’ve regretted it ever since and would never view myself as someone who is not completely supportive of rights for the disabled – and yet, I was part of this particular man’s difficulty.

What I learned from observing that man’s anger and frustration was how absolutely exhausting it is to have to remind people who you are, every day – many times a day - because you are not being seen for who you really are. Instead, people act on assumptions about gender, race, disability, orientation, age, geographic location, ethnicity, educational background, religion, etc. Unfortunately, the list goes on and on. All human beings need to be seen, heard and understood for the unique people they really are. If they are not, they will move on to try and find another group of people who see them, hear them and understand them.

If we take a cavalier approach to the experience’s of others in our workplace, assume others are exaggerating their negative experiences, downplay biased comments we hear, minimize biased behaviors we observe, decide for ourselves that we could not possibly have bias and assume that the bias we experience is the only kind that matters, then our biased workplace culture will persist.

Bias in the workplace makes an organization’s members angry, frustrated and unnecessarily burdened. It results in low morale, the organization’s tarnished reputation, alienation of good talent, attraction of substantial risk, lack of successors to the organization, offended clients and inefficient operations.

Have you heard this riddle? “A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he's about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, ‘I can't operate—that boy is my son!’ Explain how this is possible.” The answer is, the surgeon is the boy’s mother. The riddle is designed to show one’s gender bias – that even now, people still operate off the generalization that doctors are male. For the record, about a third of practicing physicians and about half of medical students in the U.S. are female.

Each of us has a lot of wiring programmed in from a long time ago that is somewhat automatic and that isn’t reflective of our true thinking in the present day. When we react quickly and somewhat unconsciously to something, implicit bias can rise to the surface but it does not necessarily reflect our true beliefs. If we haven’t explored old thinking, it is still in there.

That old thinking is at work in our workplace and in all of our business dealings. It’s important to remember at all of these times – whether we formulating an idea about a person we have never met or reading a resume to determine who to bring in for an interview.

Unless we have actively worked to rid ourselves of bias on a personal level, it will continue to manifest itself throughout the culture of our organizations. Once we identify a belief that does not serve the concept of equality, we have the power to change it. If we want to really be part of an important movement that shifts the culture in our organizations, then its time to step out of our comfort zones and get personal. It will not be easy, but it’s also the type of work about which we’ll never feel more proud.

Ultimately, if an organization is truly dedicated to shifting to a culture of equality, then it should incorporate fun and fascinating workshops on bias into their orientation, professional development programs and leadership retreats. This way all organization members can gain self-awareness about their own personal biases. Organizations also need to go a step further and implement policies and procedures that provide an objective third party to field all complaints of bias and recommend organizational responses. Organizations also need to formalize their procedures in response to those members who are exhibiting biased behavior by implementing disciplinary action, including termination.

Until organizations help their members bring their personal biases to light and make a tangible commitment to providing relief for those affected and consequences for bad behavior, they will continue to perpetuate a culture that is biased.