Intention is not enough. The truth about bias.

So I have been blathering on and on about beliefs and equality in my last few posts, and I would now like to continue said blathering. I see two great challenges in pursuing greater equality:

1- People that do not want, or believe in, equality. I used to think that this was a pretty small segment of the population in this country, and then 2014 happened. I will dig into this a bit in my next post.

2- The rest of us. Me. You. Your family, your friends and your enemies (a pox on their houses!). Your neighbors and your co-workers and your boss and your bosses boss and the people you went to school with, and your teacher, and your preacher, and your orthodontist, and all of the other people that you know and the people that you don’t know as well.

We do believe in equality and that is awesome. It’s a righteous thing to believe in, and it’s kind of integral to the idea of America. It’s wonderful that we believe in equality, but believing in it does not make it happen anymore than believing in physical fitness makes you physically fit. You have to do stuff. Believing in equality does not make it happen because believing in equality does not mean that you treat people equally. As heavily invested as each of us can get in the belief that we are nonjudgmental or non-biased (because we really want that to be true), it is an especially violent misunderstanding.

While we have snuggled up tightly with the idea that only bad or hateful people are biased, in reality there is no such thing as an unbiased human being. We judge, we assume, we jump to conclusions and much of this happens very quickly and outside of conscious awareness. I am not talking here about feelings you have that you keep to yourself, I am talking here about automatic associations that happen without you even being aware of it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, there are pros and cons really, the problem is that most of us are convinced that it does not happen.

The research on unconscious bias is pretty compelling. I am not going to try and unpack the science here, but a few books I recommend.

Everyday Bias, Howard J. Ross

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji

The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, Skankar Vedantam

A personal example…

I have a number of bad habits, one of which is a tendency to interrupt others. I am not trying to be disrespectful, I just get fired up about the conversation sometimes and words start jumping out of my mouth…but it is still a disrespectful thing to do. There have been a couple of times in the past few years that I noticed myself doing a lot of this and made a commitment to do better. To help break this habit, I would try to be very thoughtful and present when in conversations with others to be a better listener, and to catch that urge to jump in before it became action. I can do a really good job of not interrupting others when focused on it. In paying close attention to my interactions while working to change this habit, I became aware of something else. I am much more likely to interrupt women than I am men.

If you observed my behavior closely and noticed this tendency you might say “you’re sexist!” And depending on how you define that word you might be correct. I would probably respond brilliantly with something like “How can I be sexist when some of my best friends are women! I like women so much I married one!” But that would not change anything, which you already know, because we have played this game over and over again; arguing about whether or not I was a “sexist person” or a “good person.”

I was both.

I believe in equality and I had behavioral tendencies, which I was not even aware of, in conflict with that belief.

It can be unpleasant to notice something like this, but again it was not reflective of my aspirations and values, and anytime we surface contradictions is an opportunity for learning, growth and progress.

When was the last time that you surfaced some contradictions?

I teed up a scenario related to workforce demographics a couple of weeks ago, and asked that you consider the cause. I think that the story I just shared, replicated thousands of times in thousands of different ways is a massive part of the cause. The problem is that far too many of us are convinced it doesn’t have anything to do with us because we are good people.

We are good and biased…that is the part we keep leaving out.

Organizations and institutions have failed to become more inclusive and deliver more inclusive outcomes because they are focused on finding bad people and bad behavior and that is all…while big chunks of the solution lie elsewhere. As long as this is the case your attempts to compete in the “war for talent,” are compromised.

“Until you can make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

-C. G. Jung

Be good to each other.

  1. Aren't you discriminating against racists?

    […] last post was built around the idea that there are two primary barriers to realizing greater equality in an […]

contact       brand management by venn market strategies