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Overcoming Unconscious Bias In The Workplace

by Anita Sanchez, Ph.D., author of “The Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times

Professional training menus include unconscious bias training in the USA and around the world. The reasoning behind this trend is sound. It’s grounded in a commitment to the advantages of workforce diversity, which include attracting a wider pool of skilled employees, fostering increased creativity, improving decision-making, enhancing teamwork, and achieving exemplary customer service and community relations — all with improved financial performance.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Bias is a predisposition or inclination toward or against something that results in judgement. Of course, we are all susceptible to bias. When we are aware of bias, we can manage its influence on our thinking and behavior. However, when the bias is unconscious — below our awareness, attention, and control — then the conclusions and actions that we make are not accurately grounded in factual data. With the human brain encountering as much as 11 million bits of data per second, our brains automatically rely on data reduction and simplification tricks to function from moment to moment.

This process seems effective — but it turns out the non-conscious mental shortcuts we end up using in problem-solving and decision-making are greatly subject to bias, influenced by the worldview we are exposed to in our environment. The attitudes, beliefs and storylines transmitted to us by our families, schools, communities, and media provide a template that we use to make sense of what we encounter in the world. Business leaders are coming to understand that unconscious bias in our thinking, attitudes, and resulting behaviors directly and indirectly impact the bottom line. Bias interferes with our capacity to attract and keep effective talent in all positions of the organization working together productively, regardless of similarities and differences. It impedes innovation and gets in the way of the excellent customer service that is essential for business success.

How to Overcome Unconscious Bias.

If a leader and employee want more effective relationships, want to learn and grow every day and draw on the strength of effective teams, then tools and training for undoing unconscious bias are valuable assets to the business.

Three key tips include:

1. Learning to recognize unconscious bias.

Understanding what unconscious bias is and how it shows up is essential and helps us in open self-examination of what biases we hold. Identifying your inclinations, either for or against something that impacts your decisions and behavior, is essential to taking control of what thought processes are going on inside you and their impact on interactions with team members and customers. You need a degree of self-compassion toward yourself and others; however, you become aware of biases and the unintended consequences of unconscious beliefs and prejudices.

Do not just stop at awareness of biases! Unfortunately, we now know from research that unless we establish a practice of applying tools to undo the bias, then we make the bias worse by anchoring the bias into the conscious and unconscious beliefs and attitudes.

2. Use a set of strategies or practices to intentionally overwrite biased mental frames.

It is possible to reassert control over one’s one brain, thinking and make active choices about what we allow to influence us, our relationships, and the success of our businesses.

Strategies that serve this purpose engage learners in building a set of habits that help old biases fade and foster new, positive beliefs and attitudes. These exercises include activities such as stereotype replacement, perspective-taking, courageous conversations, micro-affirmations and goal setting. Rather than focusing on aversion to bad behavior, all these tactics are oriented toward clear thinking about mental processes, explicitly recognizing learners’ capacity for personal and professional growth and committed action. With practice, these skills can become second nature, a continuous, self-enhancing process that includes:

  • Recognizing bias in our thoughts (and resulting actions).
  • Considering where and how we picked up our bias.
  • Gathering and examining data that contradicts those negative stories.
  • Deepening our insight and empathy for the experiences and challenges of others.
  • Engaging in honest, open-ended exploration of colleagues’ and customers’ experiences.
  • Building new internal narratives based on attention to the others’ strengths and contributions.
  • Setting goals for increasing our own learning and practicing inclusive behavior, aiming for proactive changes in the workplace environment.

As leaders and team members, we are invigorated by the sense of positive possibilities and self-empowered learning this all implies. We have the capacity to become even better, in service to the organization’s vision and goals, with a truly inclusive workplace that brings out the best in every employee in a conscious organizational culture .

3. Leveraging for Conscious Inclusive Culture.

Rather than being just the leadership and development flavor of the week, developing a practice of recognizing and overwriting unconscious bias does work. When it is focused on the skills of replacing negative mental scripts and growing new personal and professional competence, unconscious bias training is a potent cornerstone of leadership development and organizational culture change.

The future shape of our workplace structures and systems may be uncertain. Nonetheless, each of us has the opportunity to increase our ability to contribute to, and lead, healthy teams and organizations by fine-tuning our skills, increasing our ability to be conscious of our decisions and behaviors and their impact on our lives, the lives of our employees  and businesses in whatever form our collective work takes in the future.

 

Anita Sanchez, Ph.D., Aztec and Mexican-American, is a transformational leadership consultant, speaker, coach, and author of the international best-selling book, “The Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times”. She bridges indigenous teachings with the latest science to inspire and equip women and men to enjoy meaningful, empowered lives and careers. For more information and to download the free song that is based on the book, visit www.FourSacredGifts.com. For information on Anita’s diversity training, see consulting website www.SanchezTennis.com.

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