Blog Post 1-26-15

We All Have Hidden Biases

One of the most uncomfortable challenges we face as leaders is to manage our hidden biases. We all have them, regardless of how sincerely we consider ourselves champions of diversity. They come from our life experiences, the values we formed during childhood, and the sense-making tendencies of our brains, which make up stories to filter and interpret our experience whether we like it or not. These biases run the spectrum from fully unconscious to semi-conscious to explicit, and they explain why we are drawn to certain people, indifferent to others, and perhaps even repulsed by some. Overweight people must be undisciplined; young people are entitled; Asians are math whizzes; New Yorkers are obnoxious; all veterans have mental disabilities; people with tattoos or piercings have questionable lifestyles; men are more assertive and women are more compassionate. Take a good hard look at the assumptions operating beneath the surface of your conscious thinking and you will find these kinds of biases, no matter who you are.

Our biases can come out of hiding in insidious ways. Sometimes they manifest in something called “micro-messages,” a term coined by Dr. Mary Rowe of MIT. In the course of studying the impact of bias on education, Dr. Rowe defined micro-messages as small, semi-conscious messages we send through a combination of verbal and non-verbal behavior that may tell someone either that we value them or that we don’t. When these micro-messages accumulate and form a consistent pattern, they may become micro-inequities or micro-advantages.

What’s important to our efforts to become better leaders is not that we try to deny or rid ourselves of bias, but rather that we bring them to the surface, name them, and ensure they don’t impact our behavior in negative ways. This might sound easier than it is. If you unconsciously believe, for example, that Hispanic people have a lesser work ethic than other groups, how likely are you to micromanage, over-discipline or fail to support your Hispanic employees? If you have a hidden bias that tells you middle-aged white men are entitled, might you pass over your white male employee more often when giving out choice assignments? If your unconscious bias makes you uncomfortable around gay people, isn’t that likely to make you less approachable with your gay employees?

More subtly, if you fail to recognize these hidden biases you will probably smile less at certain employees, make less eye contact, and spend less time soliciting ideas from them. These micro-messages will eventually add up to a micro-inequity that is deeply felt and impacts performance, but seems too trivial to address. No one wants to go to their boss and say, “Hey, you come in here every Monday and ask Joe how his weekend was, but you never ask me.” We’re afraid the response might be, “You’re too sensitive! Get back to work.” On the other hand, over time, most of us will recognize and feel the difference in how we are treated, and it will have an impact on how we feel about our jobs, our supervisors and the organization. Eventually we will become demoralized and demotivated, and perhaps even start searching for another job.

Micro-advantages can have a similar impact. The black supervisor who shouts, “You go girl!” at her black employees; the manager from Penn State who raises the school football team cheer with his employees from the same alma mater; the team leader from Los Angeles who uses regional slang with her employees from California--these leaders may be making some team members feel included at the expense of others. It’s only natural that we feel more comfortable with certain people, but if we want to create a culture of inclusion we must take care not to let it be felt as a micro-inequity by others on the team.

Are you ready to tackle your own hidden biases? Here are some steps to take:

• Become more aware of your biases, and don’t be afraid to name them. Consider taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ to help you understand your specific biases.
• Spend time consciously examining your behavior to ensure it doesn’t reflect any of your biases. Solicit feedback from those you trust to be honest with you.
• Become more aware of how you come across non-verbally. Are you sending micro-messages you’re unaware of? If you’ve never observed yourself interacting with others on videotape, seek opportunities to do so. You’ll learn a lot.
• Make a conscious effort to send positive micro-messages to people you feel less comfortable with, and make sure to include them in team discussions and activities. Get out of your comfort zone.