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Stop Telling Yourself (and Others) That You Don’t Have Any Bias

Bias. Prejudice. Privilege. Power. 

Each of these words carries a bit of punch. Today, societal awareness of the presence of such attitudes and the resulting impact has risen dramatically. Every one of us is being challenged, pushed, and invited to consider where we fit on the attitudinal landscape.  

The challenge is that the “punch” that I mentioned early leads to a negative connotation with these words; they give rise to a feeling of angst and ick, and I don’t know anyone who proudly proclaims that they hold particular prejudices or biases. In fact, the opposite is what generally happens; folks vehemently deny that they have any bias at all. 

I hate to break it to you; you totally have bias. Everyone does. It’s part and parcel of being human. (Take a minute and let that sink in -- and if you feel like you want to stop reading, take a breath or two or ten, and then stick with me on this… please). 

First let me say that for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on the word “bias”. While any of the other words could be used as well, focusing on one word will help me to keep this simple.  

Bias is nothing more or less than a preference for something, or a leaning towards something. As human beings, it is in our nature to lean in particular directions, generally towards the things that we feel good about, or aligned with, or that help us find our place in the world. When we perceive differences between us and those around us, we naturally lean either into or away from that difference. We position ourselves closer to the difference if we feel it will help us to be so aligned, or away from the difference if we feel it will harm us in some way (and harm can be as simple as a decreased sense of status, social currency, or safety).  

Having bias is not a problem, in and of itself. It’s what you DO with that bias that is problematic. And if you are unaware of your bias, or if you deny your bias, then you are acting on your bias unconsciously; unconscious action never serves anyone well.  

Why am I bringing this up?  

Because, when you are unaware of your bias, your actions are coloured by your naivety. Your interactions with others are slanted towards particular outcomes. Your choices reflect unconscious beliefs. 

As leaders, when we are unaware of biases we implement policies, systems and structures that embody our biases, unbeknownst to us. This leads to unnecessary angst, lack of diversity and unintended negativity.  

An example: I recently had a colleague share an experience of doing interviews within an organization. One of the interviewees was an “ideal candidate” -- her resume was exemplary. When she interviewed for the position, however, things fell flat. Not because she wasn’t who her resume reflected; but because the interview was structured based on a North American understanding of how interviews are best conducted, leaving no room for the fact (and yes, it’s a fact) that other cultures might not respond well in this sort of setting. It’s an unconscious bias. (If your response is some version of “well then, maybe she didn’t belong in the organization”, trust me, you’ve got not only bias, but prejudice at play).  

Having the realization that the bias of the leadership team was preventing otherwise excellent candidates from making it through their interview process, allowed the team to make some changes. However, it required them to take a good hard look at who they were unconsciously favouring, and what would need to change in order to be able to cast a wider net for candidates. Without increasing awareness of personal bias, such a shift would not have been possible.  

Bottom-line: as leaders -- as human beings -- it is essential that we take the time to understand ourselves better, to know our blind spots, our prejudices, our biases. Doing so allows us to take steps to minimize the negative impact -- intended or otherwise -- of operating from a biased stance. When we can name our biases for what they are, we can choose to act from a truly open stance, creating genuine connection and opportunity where it otherwise wouldn’t exist.