A few years ago an American commented enthusiastically on my accent.
At first I was flattered yet when introduced to his colleague I became defensive as he announced my ‘English accent’. So what was happening? We see here both sides of the bias coin – a positive bias attributed to my accent and a negative one on my part because I felt like a circus act. “Why not introduce me as me!” I thought. Well, over the years I have become more relaxed about it – if it really is an asset then why get uptight! I also recognise there are some accents I like more than others. We may not always be able to eliminate our biases but we can take steps to minimise their impact on decision-making.
“Bias is a preference in favour of or against someone, a group or or an activity”
Today I’ll focus on individuals. Bias is often irrational and can be influenced by past experience. If you have an aggressive physics teacher at school you might be hostile to the subject and physicists for life. Similarly an inspiring teacher can promote a passion for their subject for life. We might find it helpful to review our attitude to physicists in adulthood in order to avoid being stuck with the bias. Even just mentioning it to someone trustworthy begins the process of release. Much bias ‘information’ is not immediately conscious and therefore is risky as a decision driver.
Unprocessed bias causes conflict
An employee chats with you about joining your project advertised on the company intranet. As he enters the room you don’t like something about him. It’s an irrational response of which you are barely aware. You ask him some unusually awkward questions as if to confirm your impression and end up not placing him on your short list. He emails you asking for feedback. You reply that other candidates were more convincing. The winning candidate, however, impressed you from the start and you thought she answered your questions brilliantly. Later over a coffee with a colleague you admit she didn’t really deal any better with your questions than the rejected candidate. And the questions themselves might have been less challenging. Oops! Bias is driving decisions.
Two weeks later you attend a workshop run by your HR manager, Adrienne. She asks your group to list your individual biases on a white board both for and against people and without discussion. Ten minutes later she acknowledges the output while commenting that the list seems a bit safe. She points out characteristics like ‘punctuality’ while eliciting bias, can also be regarded as required behavior. So she now invites discussion before the group adds to the list. Awkward silence.
The discussion is essential because feedback can help you become conscious of those unconscious biases while disclosure enables you to be honest about those you keep tucked away. You immediately recall the interview and recognise that you are perhaps biased towards female candidates and against males.
As the list grows the facilitator comments: “I notice that many of these observations are still pretty safe. Why not take courage and discuss some of those that are harder to disclose.
“Give us an example?” comes the challenge.
“OK, that’s fair enough” Adrienne grows anxious. “Simon is an excellent manager. However, he is very short and I made a recommendation against his involvement in a negotiating team last year, preferring someone with more presence.”
A long silence then Simon says “Thank you Adrienne, throughout my childhood and career I’ve sensed that people are biased against me because I’m short. I try to deal with it by being more assertive.” I appreciate your openness about it. I have been waiting for someone in the group to add it to our list.” Embarrassed silence yes but relief also that it’s out there.
Martin, a gay man in his thirties, adds “I have experienced bias in favour of and against me because of my sexual preferences.”
“How do you know that?” asks Julie.
“Oh you can tell” he replies.
The problem here is that sometimes he may be right but he may project bias on to another person as a result of misinterpretation. He may even blame any disappointment by assuming bias. That’s why we need to get in touch our biases, to release them from the realm of inner conflict in order to deal fairly with others.
If you don’t have a chance to participate in an event why not create a pop-up workshop with friends or trusty colleagues. Exchange biases, tell some stories about how they have influenced your behaviour and agree that,while they may not completely disappear, you won’t allow them to guide future behaviour. Imagine a moderator in your head who can keep you neutral in those moments when bias bubbles up.