What if you don’t know your own mind as well as you think you do?
In their 2013 book Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Binaji and Anthony Greenwald reveal some surprising statistics about how many of us have biases toward African Americans, women, the elderly, and many other classifications of people. We’re often unaware of these biases, and in fact, our conscious or stated attitudes may conflict with them.1
(You can test for your own hidden biases by trying out the Implicit Association Test but be warned, you may be unpleasantly surprised.)
Where do these biases come from? From your brain’s attempt to cope with the overwhelming amount of information it has to process every day. It simply can’t handle the data points rushing at it from every direction, and so your brain simplifies the world by categorizing just about everything, and that includes people. Essentially, it automatically engages in stereotyping.
I suspect most of us would prefer not to operate under the influence of unconscious biases and we’d likewise prefer that others don’t. When I’m speaking with a group of leaders I’d prefer that their brains aren’t homing in on the fact that I’m a woman, or that I have a slight Midwestern accent, or that I have blond hair–these characteristics should be irrelevant in that situation. But the research suggests that their brains likely ARE focused on these things and further, that they’re forming an impression of me based on the associations they have with those categories. Without knowing it, my audience members are likely deciding that I’m emotional (a common association with women), that I’m “Minnesota-nice,” and if they’ve heard too many blond jokes, well… it’s not good.
So, if we’d rather not be judging each other in this way, what can we do about it?
That’s where Business Chemistry comes in. I’ll suggest that one way to mitigate the impact of our brain’s unconscious categorizations based on workplace-irrelevant factors is by encouraging conscious categorization based on workplace-relevant factors. In other words, if the leaders I’m speaking with focus in on the fact that my Business Chemistry type is Guardian, the associations their brains are making will likely now be more relevant to the situation. Their impression of me now may be that I’m detail-oriented, meticulous, and risk-averse, and also that I’m likely to be a bit stubborn.
What I’m suggesting is something akin to taking away a pair of scissors that a toddler has gotten a hold of. You can snatch the scissors away, and you can try to reason with her, but replacing the scissors with a hand-mirror is probably a better bet.
I’m proposing that rather than simply trying not to have unconscious biases, or trying somehow to reason ourselves out of the associations we have, one of the simplest solutions may be to meet our brain’s fundamental need for categorization with a different way of categorizing–one we CHOOSE and are fully aware of.
There’s evidence that this type of replacement strategy works when we’re trying to break a habit, such as eating a donut each day as a mid-afternoon snack. Instead of just trying to resist the donut, it’s more effective to create a new routine that replaces the habit, like taking an afternoon walk.2 If unconscious categorization can be seen as a habit we’d like to break, then replacing it with a new routine, like focusing in on one’s Business Chemistry type, should help.
Is this the perfect solution to unconscious bias in the workplace? No, it’s not perfect. By definition, categorizing anything means simplifying, and that means overlooking some nuance. Maybe I’m a Guardian who is NOT stubborn, and now my audience will erroneously think that I am. You might suggest it would be better to get to know each and every person we encounter individually, and it probably would. But most of us encounter far too many people in a given week, or even in a given day, to get to know them all personally. So instead, I’ll recommend a couple of strategies for using this replacement approach responsibly:
What do you think? Could Business Chemistry help us reduce unconscious bias in the workplace?
|1 Binaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: The hidden biases of good people.Random House, Inc.
2 Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.Random House, Inc.
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