Guest Post Author: Sondra Thierderman, PhD
A quick search on the internet tells me that the most commonly misdiagnosed diseases include Fibromyalgia, Multiple sclerosis, and Lyme disease. I have one to add to the list: unconscious bias. Admittedly, biases – our inflexible beliefs about particular categories of people – are not medical in nature, but they nonetheless have the power to inflict stinging emotional pain on individuals and organizations.
So, how can we accurately diagnose if a belief is or is not a bias? Of the tools we have to diagnose bias, the one I am talking about here is my favorite. It’s my favorite because it is downright delicious in its simplicity. It consists of two straight-forward steps:
Step One: Notice the first assumption – the first thought – that pops into your brain when encountering someone different from yourself. That assumption is the target of our diagnosis.
Step Two: With that first assumption in mind, ask yourself this question: “Would I feel the same way about the meaning of this person’s behavior if he or she were of a different group?” If the answer is that you would change your mind depending on the group involved, that first assumption just might be a bias wafting up from the depth of your unconscious.
Take a look at these examples and you’ll have a pretty good idea how this works.
The Grocery Clerk: You are standing in line at the grocery store. You just got off work and are rushing to get home to prepare dinner and get on with your evening. The line is long and you are impatient. One reason for your impatience is the fact that the clerk behind the register keeps making mistakes and is moving – at least in your frenzied opinion – at a glacially slow pace. The ethnicity of the clerk is obvious from her appearance and from the way she is speaking.
As you watch her slow movements and apparent shortcomings, into your head pops this thought: “Why on earth do they hire ‘those people’?” Just as you notice the thought, ask yourself this question: “If the group to which the clerk belongs were different, would I still say ‘those people’? Or, would I say ‘that person’?” If you would say “that person,” you are clearly in bias territory. There is no bias in noticing the traits of one individual. On the other hand, there is a bias in generalizing about an entire group of people.
The Conference Speaker: You are at a convention listening to presentations delivered by several of your colleagues. One of the presenters has a heavy non-American accent. As you struggle to understand what he is saying, this thought comes into your brain: “I know he has a good reputation, but his ideas aren’t that well thought out.” Just as you are aware of your thought, ask yourself this: “If my colleague didn’t have an accent, would I have liked his ideas better?” If your answer is yes, you probably have a bias that tricks you into believing, “People with heavy accents are less smart and less creative.”
The Executive: You are observing a new female executive give a presentation. She paces, raises her voice, and gestures broadly as she speaks of her concerns about the rising competition. At one point, she leaves the stage, runs down the center aisle then back up on the stage where she pounds on the table. You turn to the person next to you and say, “Gee, she sure is getting hysterical.” Now, ask yourself: “If the speaker were a man, would I still have thought him hysterical?” If not, if, instead, you would have merely thought he was enthusiastic, you probably have a bias that reads, “Women are more apt to get hysterical when under pressure.”
Interesting, isn’t it? Give it a try – next time you spot an assumption pop into your head, switch out the identity of the group involved. You might just be surprised at what you learn.
About Sondra Thiederman: Dr. Thiederman is one of the nation’s leading experts on workplace diversity, bias reduction, and cross-cultural business. She has brought 25 years of experience to helping Fortune 500 companies, government organizations, and dozens of associations become successful in our increasingly diverse workplaces.
© copyright 2016 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.