November 2009 - Reducing Unconscious Bias
It's one thing to attack and defeat a bias that is conscious - at least, in that case, we can see the target and know where to aim. But, what of those biases - those inflexible beliefs - that keep themselves hidden deep inside our psyches? Are we stuck with them or, if not, is the only solution a slow and painful process of self-examination and introspection?
Fortunately, the answer is, no, we're not stuck with unconscious biases and, although introspection is always a good idea, there are more tangible strategies that can be equally effective. Let's take a look at three of them.
Strategy 1: Display counter-bias images in the workplace. Research indicates that being exposed to images that run counter to prevailing biases - even if those biases are unconscious - can actually, through time, erode and change those attitudes. The reason this works is the same reason that pervasive images cause biases in the first place - the images send a message that gets slowly but surely imbedded in the brain.
What these images are depends on the bias challenges and demographics of your workplace. Examples might be: A person with a visible disability depicted in a position of leadership; a woman depicted in a usually male dominated role (or the other way around); an older person deeply involved with technology. These images might appear on posters, in brochures, on your intranet site or in any other place that is viewed by members of your team.
Strategy 2: Facilitate contact between diverse people in your workplace.
Nothing diffuses unconscious bias faster than contact between people who might have inflexible beliefs about each other's group. I have written elsewhere about why contact works to diffuse bias, but the bottom line is, the more unique individuals we meet, the more we realize that any inflexible belief about an entire group is by definition inaccurate.
In order for that contact to be most effective it needs to have these characteristics:
- Appropriately intimate (not too casual or brief)
- Goal oriented
The specific way you make this contact happen depends on your workplace culture and logistical restraints. One common approach, however, is to arrange for volunteer activities that bring people of diverse backgrounds together around the shared goal of helping others.
Strategy 3: Model bias-free behaviors.
The more your team witnesses behavior that is consistent with lack of bias, the more apt they are to let go of their own hidden inflexible beliefs and prejudices. Model what is right. The result will be, not only a better workplace, but also a better you.
(Permission to reprint. Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. Copyright 2009 Sondra Thiederman/Cross-Cultural Communications, www.thiederman.com)