We all like to think that we’re impartial in our decisions, both at work and in our personal lives. However, research tells us that we aren’t– no one is. We all harbor preconceptions about groups of people based on our cultural background and prior experience. These preconceptions often guide our decisions even when we are not consciously aware of them, so that even when we think we’re being open-minded and impartial, we may not be.
I don’t want to turn this blog post into a full background on implicit bias. If this is a new concept to you, the Kirwan Institute has a good introductory page, and Jerry Kang has a lot of introductory and background material available, too.
For the purposes of this post, the important things to know about implicit biases are:
- Everyone has them, even people who are members of historically disadvantaged groups.
- They influence our decisions without us being aware of them.
- We can have both negative and positive implicit biases.
- We tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own “ingroup,” but can also hold implicit biases that disfavor our ingroup.
- We can hold implicit biases that are completely counter to our own conscious beliefs, i.e., a person can say they think men and women are equal, and still harbor implicit biases against women or in favor of men.
Even that abbreviated overview of implicit biases can be a bit depressing. If we all hold these biases and they influence our decisions without our conscious knowledge, what can we do to make better, more impartial decisions?There has been some interesting research about how we might be able to “retrain” our brain away from implicit biases (summarized in this Boston Globe story about combating bias in policing), but my sense is that we still don’t really know the best way to deal with implicit biases in the workplace.
I’ve taken an approach that at first felt completely wrong to someone raised (as I was) in the era in which we were told that the way to combat racial discrimination was to be “colorblind.” I try to surface my potential biases and check whether they are driving my decision. I understand and accept that my own self-assessment will never be perfect in this regard, but I think it has helped me do better at keeping my biases from impacting other people. I want to emphasize that I have no idea whether or not this is effective in truly reducing bias. My goal was to reduce the impact of any biases I harbor. This was also not a controlled study by any stretch: It was one person changing how she makes decisions about important things like hiring and performance feedback.
Here is what I did: Whenever I was forming an opinion on someone or their behavior, I stopped myself and asked if I think the same thing if this person was a member of a different group.
For instance, if I formed an opinion of the behavior of a Latina employee, I’d ask myself: Would I think the same thing if she were white? If she were a man?
At first, I only did this when forming opinions of people who were members of historically disadvantaged groups, but eventually it became somewhat second nature to me, and I now often do it when forming opinions of people in advantaged groups, too.
I won’t pretend I do this all the time, on every decision. But I did do it anytime I was making a decision in which I was explicitly evaluating someone, such as in writing performance reviews.
The results of this practice were surprising to me in several ways.
First of all, I was a bit surprised about how often my answer to the question of “Would I think the same thing if she were a man?” was “No.” This is an example of the fact that you can harbor negative biases against groups in which you are a member.
Second, and more profoundly, I was surprised by how much better my decisions seemed to me when I used this method, and how much more confident I felt in them.
The benefit of making better decisions is obvious, but don’t overlook the impact of the second part of that statement. The increased confidence is also a key part of why I think learning about implicit bias made me a better manager. One aspect of being a good manager is having sometimes difficult discussions with employees when their performance falls short of what you expect, either for their current level or the next level to which they aspire. All employees need this feedback to learn and grow and get better at what they do. Many managers shy away from giving this feedback, though, particularly when they fear it might be perceived as evidence of bias. At least for me, doing an internal check on whether or not the feedback was fair helped me feel confident enough to go ahead and give my employees the feedback they needed.
There were other benefits, too. Since I was more aware of opinions about members of my team that might be informed by bias, I was better prepared to counter these opinions when I came across them in others, including other managers whose opinions might have an impact on my team’s ability to deliver on its goals or influence my team members’ opportunities for advancement. The habit of performing a quick double check of my opinions and decisions and asking myself “why do I think that?” spilled over into other types of decisions and made me more prepared to defend my decisions when challenged. I encouraged my team to question the reasoning behind my decisions, both because that leads to better decisions and because it can help people learn the skills needed to advance into management. I suspect that my ability to quickly provide that reasoning increased their confidence in me and helped build our team cohesion.
I have no strict proof that these perceived benefits improved my managerial performance by any concrete measure. However, I didn’t feel any negative impacts and so I have continued to do the internal check whenever I form opinions of people, even now that I am an independent contractor and no longer directly manage anyone. I still work as a project manager, and as such my opinions on people’s performance can have consequences for them.
In short, although the initial exploration into implicit bias and how it operates was a bit uncomfortable for me, it proved to be a good thing in the long term. I encourage you to look into this topic, too, and consider how you might lessen the impact of your own implicit biases (remember, we ALL have them!) on other people.
There are many reasons to learn about implicit bias, and in my opinion the most important is that it helps us make the world a better, more fair place. However, this post is not about those reasons. It is only about how learning about implicit bias influenced my behavior as a manager.
If you want to read more on implicit biases in the workplace, this report from the Cook Ross consulting firm has a lot of information and ideas on the topic.
In completely unrelated news, I am offering a new seminar. It is on running more productive and effective meetings, and it is enrolling now for a July 29 session.