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Diversity, Inclusion, and the Concealed Mind (Part 1) by Howard Ross

January 9, 2012

Buried deep within our subconscious mind, all of us harbor biases that we consciously reject. These are not harmless thoughts that pop up periodically and get overruled by our reason. We act on these thoughts, often unwittingly.  We all have bias that is beyond the reach of our normal range of awareness. This is unconscious or hidden bias.

People can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes. When encountering a person for the first time, our brains automatically make note of detectable human differences.  But, if we are hardwired to discriminate, are we doomed? The answer is a resounding no.

An awareness of unconscious bias allows and requires us to fundamentally rethink the way we approach leadership, training, organizational policy and culture on a number of different levels. Organizations have focused a great deal of attention on trying to find ways for people, especially those in the dominant groups, to “get” diversity. The challenge is that “getting it,” on a conscious level, may have little or no impact on our unconscious beliefs and, more importantly, behavior. Our knowledge of unconscious bias makes several things abundantly clear:

  • The limiting patterns of unconscious behavior are not restricted to any one group. All of us have them, and effective managers and business leaders particularly have to focus on our own assumptions and biases if we expect to have the moral authority to guide others in acknowledging and confronting theirs.
  • A person who behaves in a non-exclusive or even discriminatory way does not have to be motivated by negative intent. When we approach people who view themselves as good individuals trying to do the right thing as if they “should have known better,” we are likely to be met with resistance. If we approach them with an assumption of innocence in intent, but with an emphasis on the impact of their behavior, we are more likely to reach them effectively and win their willing attention.
  • Finally, we should not rely on any sense of subjective determinations of attitude, either individually or collectively, to determine whether our organizations are functioning in inclusive ways. Our conscious attitudes may have little to do with our success in producing results. We have to create objective measurements that give us individual and collective feedback on our performance if we are to create organizations that are truly inclusive.

The Pain and Cost of Unconscious Bias

One of the core drivers behind the work of diversity and inclusion professionals, almost since the inception of the first corporate diversity efforts, has been to find the “bad people” and fix them; to eradicate bias. There is good reason for this. If we are going to create a just and equitable society, and if we are going to create organizations in which everybody can have access to their fair measure of success, it clearly is not consistent for some people to be discriminated against based on their identification with a particular group. Also, clear examples of conscious bias and discrimination still exist, whether in broader societal examples or more specific organizational examples.

The problem with the good person/bad person paradigm is two-fold: it virtually assures that both on a collective and individual basis we will never “do diversity right” because every human being has bias of one kind or another. Secondly, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of a reality: human beings, at some level, need bias to survive. So, are we biased? Of course. Virtually every one of us is biased toward something, somebody, or some group.

Implicit biases grow out of normal and adaptive features of human thinking. Our very survival at one time depended upon our adaptive tendency to categorize, to form groups and to absorb subtle social messages and cues. Navigating a complex world requires us to make sense of the environment around us.

The problem arises when we form associations that contradict our intentions, beliefs, and values. That is, many people unwittingly associate “female” with “weak,” “Arab” with “terrorist,” or “black” with “criminal,” even though such stereotypes undermine shared values such as fairness and equality.

The Deep Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious bias has been shown to impact whether hiring officers choose the most qualified candidate for a job. If we are unaware of our biases, can we give an employee a fair performance review? Or hire the right CEO? Where diversity is concerned, unconscious bias creates hundreds of seemingly irrational circumstances every day in which people make choices that seem to make no sense and be driven only by overt prejudice, even when they are not. Of course, there are still some cases where people are consciously hateful, hurtful, and biased. These people still need to be watched for and addressed. But it is important to recognize that the concept of unconscious bias does not only apply to “them.” It applies to all of us.  Each one of us has some groups with which we consciously feel uncomfortable, even as we castigate others for feeling uncomfortable with our own groups.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of Fighting the Bias in Your Brain. Howard will conclude his post on how to deal with unconscious bias in the workplace and the five steps to address and reduce unconscious bias. Don’t miss Howard’s free webinar on February 28, 2012 on ReInventing Diversity: A New Approach to Transforming Organizational Culture. To register, click here>>


About the author:

Howard J. Ross is a builder of innovations in the field of diversity and inclusion and a unifier of people, organizations, and causes. He is founder & Chief Learning Officer of Cook Ross Inc. and an advisor to major global educational, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental organizations. Through his unique combination of a personal and system-focused approach, Howard is an advocate for high-performing organizational cultures that advance people, performance, and profits. Howard has served more than 25 years as an influential business consultant to hundreds of organizations across the globe, specializing in leadership, diversity, and organizational transformation.

Originally published in the March 2010 edition of The Linkage Leader.

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