On Conscious Bias

We have a teammate at Holistic, Elda Baez, who is great. She does our social media and communications. In one of the buildings that we visit, the receptionist can’t fully seem to process the idea that Elda’s last name is Baez, and instead consistently issues her a badge for Elda Bias, which is actually completely hilarious considering the world that we live in, and the work that we do. Diversity and inclusion humor doesn’t really get much funnier than that. So obviously, in true Holistic fashion, we gave her the nickname Elda “Unconscious“ Bias.

Unconscious bias awareness is a big theme in diversity and inclusion work these days. It is becoming increasingly prevalent, it is increasingly understood, and it gives us tremendous ability and facility to work with many partner organizations immediately. Eliminating or at least reducing unconscious bias is a key element of any sort of advancements that workplaces want to make.

But one of the things you have to fundamentally understand with bias awareness is that the complete eradication or elimination of bias is impossible. We all have biases, they manifest themselves in all sorts of different ways, and they are going to exist and grow and flavor our actions for our entire lives.

I’ll give you two examples from my own experience.

First, my wife’s name is Tiffany. And as a result, I am quite simply nicer to anybody named Tiffany. I give more opportunities, I give more benefit of the doubt, I like them more, I’m more likely to think that they’re smart or vibrant people. This really has nothing to do with anything other than their name. (My daughter’s name is Lyla, and fortunately for me and Holistic and society in general, there are not that many people out there named Lyla these days, and certainly not with the spelling L-Y-L-A, so I’m at least able to function.)

The second example is that I like left-handed people. I think they’re more dynamic and more interesting. My son Sam is left-handed and I’m absolutely thrilled about it. I’m really quite aware of people who are left-handed and I am consistently enthusiastic when I notice that somebody is left-handed. So in a job interview, or in a scenario where I’m getting a new partner, I would definitely notice if somebody is left-handed and I will feel an immediate and positive reaction (I see you Lisa Laws Rosanna Krug Elise Gerwicks Mary Maclaren). It’s actually gotten so visible and obvious that sometimes I break out smiling or laughing the moment that I notice that somebody is left-handed and then I have to explain myself. (I’m right handed by the way and I hate it— perhaps that’s why I like looking in the mirror so much lol?!?!).

So you could imagine what would happen if a lefty named Tiffany walked in for a meeting. Would I just take out my checkbook in my wallet and hand it over to her? Probably not, but is she in better shape starting out then a righty named John? Unequivocally.

Biases are one of two things: they are unconscious or they are conscious. That’s it. It’s completely binary. There’s no other state of being where bias can exist. It’s unconscious until the point that you recognize it and become aware of it and then it is conscious. Once it is conscious, you have to deal with it. And your goal is not to eliminate it from existence, but to reduce the potential impact that it may have on your decision-making in your work or in your life. This is a key point that I think many people miss. The goal of bias awareness is not to eliminate biases, the goal of bias awareness is to understand your biases so that you can better cope with them and live with them and conduct yourself appropriately while acknowledging them.

Here are three quick techniques that you can do, starting today, to help yourself do this.

First, make a list of your conscious biases. (I say conscious here because the moment you write them down, they are by definition conscious). What are the things you prefer? What are things you look for? Be as honest as you possibly can. Maybe you prefer somebody who went to the University of Missouri. Maybe you like people from the same fraternity, or from the same hometown? Maybe your biases are more serious and harder to deal with and need to be dealt with more aggressively (e.g. this is where race, gender, sexuality, physical appearance come into play). You don’t have to share this list with anybody but the very act of writing it down will be a tremendously therapeutic endeavor.

Second, make a list of antidotes. Another way to put this is to make a list of the things that you actually do care about. Chances are you don’t care about somebody because they went to Mizzou, you care about smart people and you just happen to think that somebody from Mizzou is smart. I like left-handed people because in my experience left-handed people are creative and dynamic and live their life with a bit of a different perspective from the majority and I believe that this shapes their behavior. So when you have your list of biases and then you have your list of things you actually care about you can begin the process every shaping your focus -- the list of things you care about is easier to deal with than the list of biases.

Third, practice. Every moment of every day is an opportunity to recognize biases and practice reducing your impact on them. If you know that you care strongly about something, one way or the other, then every time you recognize it, there should be a conscious process of trying to understand and reduce the impact.

Recognize. Refocus. Practice. You can start this today. It’s free. You don’t need to ask permission. And it will change your life.

Tom Alexander