Is Everybody Biased?

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

The answer appears to be “yes.” Problem is, most of us don’t know it. It’s those other people who are biased. During the hotly contested Senate race here in Virginia, both candidates – Allen and Webb – have been accused of bias. Allen for his views of people of color. Webb for a paper wrote suggesting that women weren’t up to the task of leading in the military.

According to Brian Nosek, psychologist at the University of Virginia, “It would be no surprise that these two gentlemen have implicit biases – they are human like the rest of us.” (Washington Post 10/9/06) So what’s this got to do with change? A lot. Organizations are filled with these same biases. Take your pick: race, gender, age, culture, union-management, the list goes on. If we believe we are free of bias, then we believe that our actions will be fair.

Brain research indicates that the part of the brain triggered by fear lights up when we see photos of people who are different from us. When you or I talk with particular groups, our ability to listen and engage may be short-circuited by the brain’s warning to protect ourselves, and get out of there fast. For example, perhaps we don’t listen quite as intently to that group. . . or we hold shorter meetings. . . .or we guess how they will react to our idea, and never actually talk with them. Or when we hear their comments, we sigh, and think, “What can you expect from that group.” As subtle as these unwitting tactics may be, they send strong signals that we can’t be trusted. There is a way out of this mess.

1. Acknowledge that we just might be like everyone else and harbor some biases; therefore, we need to be extra vigilant. Alan Alda, the actor, once said that “actors need to listen with a willingness to be changed.” That advice applies to us. We need to listen in ways that allow us to be influenced by what we are hearing. The task is not to pretend we are free of bias, but to act in ways that override these deeply rooted beliefs.

2. Create strategies that force you to listen and engage with stakeholders. For example, I find that short anonymous surveys often help my clients engage with the data. Why? Because the survey results can be read privately. People can go back to them to review. Privacy and time sometimes allow us to take in information in ways that we couldn’t if we were sitting face-to-face. It gives those fear triggers time to clam down.

3. Get an informal ombudsman on your team. This is someone who is savvy about what people might really be saying. Someone who can tell you to look at the situation differently. This ombudsman must be someone you trust.

4. Be willing to repeat the tasks on this list again and again.

I wish you well.


Rick Maurer