We have a BIG problem when it comes to diversity and inclusion: the human mind.
Yes, believe it or not, every human mind is biased, whether it is the mind of the Dalai Lama or Donald Trump.
Meaning every human mind forms opinions and judgments based on past experiences, based on hearsay, based on the culmination of influences it has been exposed to over time.
We have evolved this way for our survival, in fact – by being able to retrieve our memories and categorize things as “good” and “bad”, we protect ourselves from known dangers and sources of pain.
However, this very capacity of ours backfires on us, when we begin judging an entire race, or gender, or ethnicity. Or even when we judge an individual we know, based on limited interactions with them. When we put human beings into boxes of “good” and “bad” based on our past interactions, we miss out on their amazing complexity; and we miss out on opportunities for our own growth and the growth of our businesses.
In this fast-paced, competitive society we live in, however, it can be very convenient to be able to categorize people in this way. Because complexity takes time and effort, that perhaps we simply don’t believe we have. So judgment seems to serve our need to make quick decisions, be as productive as possible, and get things done.
Except often, when we take this approach, problems don’t actually get solved. The rush to make decisions quickly ends up being counterproductive. For example, when we form a team of homogenous members based on our “gut instinct” of who is the right fit, we risk the lack of originality. There are no very new, very out of the box ideas to discover. Sameness and comfort lead to stagnancy.
But as much as we may try, we cannot exactly wipe our brains clean like a slate. We can’t erase our past experiences and memories(without some serious hypnosis and brainwashing, maybe). So what to do?
The 3A Approach
ACCEPTANCE. The first step is to accept that you are biased. You can stop feeling guilty about it. After all, bias is a part of the human experience. As mentioned, it is our natural, primal instinct to form judgments in order to keep ourselves “safe.”
AWARENESS. The second step, though, is a commitment to awareness. Be aware of your bias and how it affects you in big and small ways. When you find yourself deciding against working with someone, hiring someone, or even sitting next to someone on the subway, recognize that it may be due to a bias. It is due to a belief about them, which may or may not actually be true, but which you have been conditioned to believe. Be aware also of where that conditioning came from. Was it your family? An experience you had in the past? The media? Where and when did this belief form?
ACTION. The final step is action. Meaning now that you have identified your bias, challenge it. Do what doesn’t feel natural. Engage the person who seems to be your total opposite. Who seems to not be the right “fit.” But not on a superficial level. If you can, take the time to really get to know their story. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes. And try to extract the gold from their story. What is something unique about this person that enriches you or teaches you something new?
Train Your Teams
Despite the easy acronym, this is not an easy process, and it does take time. Admitting to ourselves our biases, and then actually changing our behavior doesn’t happen overnight. It requires baby steps, and each step on the journey is valuable. Just becoming aware of bias and where it arose from is itself major progress.
As People leaders, it is our responsibility to develop this competency – in ourselves, in hiring teams, and in the company at large. And it means major changes to processes. It is much more than just checking boxes and ensuring enough minorities are being hired. It requires training your teams to develop awareness of their own biases when identifying candidates. Changing the conversations that they are having with candidates.
Remember, bias cannot be removed, so don’t frustrate yourself trying to remove it. But don’t succumb to it, either. Encourage bias to be challenged and overcome, through 1. Acceptance, 2. Awareness and 3. Action.