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Recognizing and Overcoming Personal Biases

A bias is a predisposition for or against something. We can be either favorably, or unfavorably, biased, although the word tends to carry more negative than positive connotations. The important point, though, is that we all naturally have biases—they’re an unavoidable fact of life. Whether related to issues, individuals or preferences in music, art, or food, we carry biases with us wherever we go. Unfortunately, these biases are so ingrained that we generally don’t give a lot of thought to them.

In workplace settings, that can lead to a wide range of problems, most notably during the hiring process. We all are naturally drawn to people who are “like us.” Unfortunately, staffing a department or organization with a lot of like-minded people doesn’t generally lead to the kind of innovative thinking that most of today’s organizations are looking for. Favoring people who are “like us” can also lead us down a path of sameness that can negatively impact the diversity of our organizations.

Examples abound. Recently Uber was one of the latest companies to come under scrutiny for a hostile environment. Following claims of sexual harassment, the company is attempting to bolster its diversity team. (http://www.hrdive.com/news/uber-to-expand-diversity-team-after-sexual-harassment-claims-surface/438103/) The Marines are also reeling after news reports of salacious photos of female service members being posted to social media hit the press. The Corps is vowing to institute not only sexual harassment reforms, but a criminal probe as well. (http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/military/veterans/sd-me-military-gender-20170306-story.html)

Not all bias-related workplace incidents are so egregious, of course. On a daily basis we are all prone to making decisions or forming decisions based on the biases we all carry. So, what can we do to minimize the negative impacts of these biases?

  • Accept that you have them. We all do.
  • Assess the likely impacts of such biases. From a hiring standpoint, for instance, you could take a look at your employee statistics to determine how diverse your employee workforce is. Are a wide range of ages, races and ethnicities present in your workforce, reflective of the population you hire from or serve? Are there variations that can be spotted within specific departments or divisions that might suggest bias?
  • Bring bias to light. As we’ve said, the word “bias” tends to be associated with negative connotations. By raising the issue openly and having discussions around bias and the power it has to potentially negatively influence decisions, awareness is also raised.
  • Test your own biases. Project Implicit is a non-profit organization dedicated to conducting research on unconscious bias and educating the public about its impacts. (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/research/) They offer a series of online assessments that can be taken to reveal individual biases.
  • Monitor your responses to others, to issues and to events. At the moment when you first feel yourself forming an opinion—particularly a negative opinion—stop to consider whether that opinion may be based on unconscious bias. This can be particularly productive when engaged in debates or heated discussions with others. Reasonable minds can differ.

Failing to recognize and address your unconscious biases can result in missed opportunities for you—and for others. Take steps today to begin seeking ways to become more self-aware, and to start conversations in your organization that can help open minds to new possibilities and potential.

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