Understanding Bias Is Essential to Inclusion

 -  4/16/12

It is human nature to be biased. However, we can take measures to raise individual and organizational awareness of bias and limit its effect on inclusion.

At a basic level, any diversity and inclusion conversation invites self-reflection. It requires acceptance of the possibility that there is a non-level playing field and something needs to change. For many, this introspection creates guilt and defensiveness. Thus the D&I conversation has been challenging in the following ways:

• It has focused on the bad behaviors of primarily white heterosexual men.

• There is resistance to the idea that discriminatory behavior is happening, particularly if there is an assumption that it is intentional.

• Defensiveness gets tapped, born out of cognitive dissonance created when well-intended people are asked to accept that they were treating others unfairly.

People believe in a meritocracy — a system in which people get ahead due to their ability and skill. Challenging that means challenging an entire belief system. Most don’t like thinking that they are a part of and contributing to an unfair system – that they and the system itself might be biased. It is dissonant with personal and societal values of fairness and equal opportunity.

This has been the undercurrent of much of the D&I work of the last 30 years. Thus, much of the energy in training programs and consulting engagements has focused on trying to manage guilt and defensiveness that resulted from trying to convince leaders that there was a problem and that they were a part of it. Today, the challenge is the same but it can be framed differently, in a way that doesn’t generate so much guilt and defensiveness.

To do so, it helps to understand the nature of bias itself. A modern understanding of bias holds that:

Bias is ever-present, unavoidable and human. Even when the intention is to be inclusive, perceptions that sit in the unconscious brain often rule the day when it comes to decision making.

Much of the time biases are not only unintentional, but also unconscious. Unconscious impressions are formed quickly; more quickly than the process of conscious reasoning.

Unconscious bias translates into behavior. Bias translates into behavior, both at the interpersonal and the organizational level. These biases affect everything from first impressions to employment decisions. It is impossible to separate bias from behavior unless that bias is made conscious.

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