United States: Blind Spots (Part 1): Implicit Bias In The Workplace

"Isms" can be tough, like the words racism, ageism, and sexism. "Ism" is even its own word. It is a noun meaning "a distinctive doctrine, theory, system or practice." Mostly, we use -ism as a suffix as in vegetarianism or regionalism. The same is true for -ist words like racist, sexist, socialist, typist, motorist, though here we're now referring to a person with a set of skills or beliefs. Depending on a ton of factors -ism and -ist words may be shunned or embraced. With hot button -isms and the climate, it is often hard to hear (or read), "I'm not a bad person. I'm not a ____-ist." In this scenario, what is often being referred to is an explicit or overt opinion or view point. Biases, however, are different from -isms or --ists. As Verna A. Myers explains in What If I Say the Wrong Thing: 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People, "the isms speak to how certain groups have the power and privilege to act on their biases and prejudices, and to define what is right and good and beautiful and true."

But what if the viewpoint is more hidden and so hidden that the person holding the viewpoint or preference is not even aware of it? And what if that hidden view is actually at direct odds with the person's stated (explicit) viewpoint? Unlike explicit bias, which is a conscious and elected belief or attitude, implicit bias digs into our unconscious judgments, behaviors, and decisions. Implicit bias is of great concern in the legal industry because of its impact on the fair administration of justice. As thought leaders and change agents in an industry heavily dependent upon human engagement and personal interactions at all levels (front of house, back of house, at the table, before and after hours with employees), exploring the existence and consequences of implicit bias, individually and within your organizations should be your 2018 resolution's list. As highlighted by my Houston colleague, Ehsan Tabesh in: Combating Implicit Bias in the Workplace, implicit bias is present in ourselves and workplaces. The question is whether we will wrestle with it to create healthier, more effective environments.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses implicit bias in his bestseller, Blink, like this:

All of us have implicit biases to some degree. This does not necessarily mean we will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that our first "blink" sends us certain information. Acknowledging and understanding this implicit response and its value and role is critical to informed decision-making and is particularly critical to those whose decisions must embody fairness and justice.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005).

Seeking Out Our Blind spots

Because of the emotionally charged language embedded in -ism and -ist words and even the word bias, let us pick a different demarcation line, the blind spot as explored in Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahsarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald.

First, is the acceptance there are parts of our brain that are unknown to us. Blind spots or mind bugs refer to the unconscious triggers and associations made by our brains that are often hidden to us because they are embedded preferences, not reflective ones. And implicit mindbugs or blind spots often can bother us because they are at direct odds with our chosen beliefs. Can we hold mutually inconsistent ideas at the same? Yes. Myers notes that one of the first steps is to "consider how your cultural programming impacts your interactions." For example, Myers suggests reflecting on these questions to find out "more about who you are, what and whom you value, how you interpret the behaviors of others, and why sometimes you say or do the "wrong" thing."

  • How do you see yourself?
  • How do others see you?
  • With whom do you feel comfortable working, living, socializing, partnering, and worshipping?
  • Does your cultural programming make it easier or more challenging for you to embrace people of different backgrounds?

Second, is the acceptance that we acquire blind spots and mind bugs from growing up. We are a sum of our parts and our wiring begins at an early age. Life's experiences provide unearned advantages and undeserved disadvantages and right alongside of these advantages and disadvantages are layers of judgments, value structures, and belief systems - - both explicit and implicit. How we think, judge, evaluate, and then behave is intimately intertwined with the experiences we have growing up. Myers illustrates the "take a walk exercise" as a tangible example of what unearned advantage and deserved disadvantage looks like by placing everyone on the starting line and then asking question like this:

If your ancestors were forced against their will to come to the United States, step back. If most of your family members worked in careers requiring college education, step forward. If you ever tried to change your appearance, behavior, or speech to avoid being judged on the basis of the perception other people had of your race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, step back. If your family owned its own house, step forward. If the head of your organization is of the same race/ethnicity as you are, step forward.

To see this exercise follow the link here: Students Take the Walk

These shaping moments and broader and deeper than a quick list of -isms or -ist terms and should serve as a reminder of the complexity that our blind spots play in our interactions.

And third, is the acceptance that stereotypes dominate our brain's way of sorting and categorizing information and upon which our brains make moment-to-moments judgments reflectively. As Banaji and Greenwald explain, "Stereotypes do not take special effort to acquire. Quite the opposite-they are acquired effortlessly, and take special effort to discount. Discounting stereotypes is not easy, because of the value of the general mental process into which stereotypic thinking is embedded. The same mental abilities that allow us to perceive and categorize appropriately, that are necessary for us to learn and understand, and that make us successful at detecting and recognizing, are also the abilities that can lead us astray."1 Myers here provides reflection questions on possible recent decisions:

  • Whom did you sell your house to?
  • Whom did you choose to sit next to on the train?
  • How did you react to your child's new friend?
  • How did you choose your doctor when you joined you new medical insurance carrier?
  • Did the answers to any of these questions confirm any biases you might be carrying?

Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Implicit Association Test

1 Blind Spot, the hidden cost of stereotypes, at p. 109.

"How can we show the existence of something in our own minds of which we remain completely unaware?" The Implicit Association Test is a tool specifically designed for individuals to discover their own blind spots.

Project Implicit: Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition - thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a "virtual laboratory" for collecting data on the Internet.

We will pick up in a few months with Blind Spots (Part 2): Can I Learn to See?

Originally published in WCR



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