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Words on Wise Management

Blinded By Bias

May 18, 2018

We work diligently to keep our organizations safe by creating policies and handbooks, training manag­ers on how to appropriately handle issues related to discrimination and harassment, and employing law­yers to review everything. Yet, we still have problems. Not only do we have problems, but many times, we don’t even recognize them when they are right in front of our face. Even worse, there are times we can’t recognize issues when they are pointed out to us.

When in Japan

About 20 years ago, I traveled to Japan for a busi­ness trip. At the beginning of the trip, my female colleague was aware of the bias in Japanese culture related to women and decided to let executives at the Japanese company immediately know that she wanted to be treated the same as the men on our team.

One evening, the Japanese executives took us to socialize at a bar where they assigned a hostess to each person. The hostesses were there to keep you company, converse, and serve drinks. My female col­league was provided a hostess as well. She was not happy and felt the executives were not treating her the same, so she complained. They very much wanted her to be satisfied, so they sent her hostess away and got her another one. That hostess did not satisfy her. My colleague again let the executives know that she was not happy and tried to explain why. She said she should have a host rather than a hostess. From her perspective, that meant she was being treated equally. But that confused the executives even more. They felt that providing her with a male host would be treating her differently than everyone else.

It was a very interesting misunderstanding. Who would have thought that something that seemed so simple would be so challenging? Let’s consider why.

Shortcuts of the mind

According to best-selling author Daniel Coyle, the unconscious mind can process 11 million pieces of data per second, but our conscious mind can handle only 40. There is so much information in front of us that we would become paralyzed and overwhelmed without developing ways to cope and process quickly. As a result, we develop tools called heuristics or deci­sion triggers. Decision triggers are shortcuts we take in decision making and problem solving. Those shortcuts are based on assumptions, set behavior patterns, and cultural expectations. We are influenced or are able to make certain decisions without thinking about them.

Normally, those shortcuts are helpful, but in an ever increasingly diverse world with a rapid pace of change, they can have negative effects or unintended preferences—implicit bias. Implicit bias is formed by the brain placing people in social categories because of personal experience (or lack thereof) or the way the media portrays things. It forms the way we see things such as gender, age, height, body size, cultural back­ground, social background, and more.

Beating bias

The first way to address implicit or unconscious bias is to acknowledge and accept that we are all bi­ased. Here are 10 other ways to address bias person­ally and organizationally:

  1. Productively raise awareness of unconscious bias in your organization.
  2. Test yourself to become more aware.
  3. Expose yourself to contradictory information and images.
  4. Recognize when you have incomplete informa­tion or are being rushed to decide.
  5. Test assumptions with research.
  6. Train managers and leaders on bias and how it works.
  7. Assess your organizational culture, and build the culture you want.
  8. Get a coach or go through bias training.
  9. Use tools and technology that remove bias.
  10. Set a goal to work on one area of bias.