Behaviors Not Bias
Neutralizing Hidden Prejudice
If you’ve been asked to take one of the many tests designed to identify your implicit or hidden biases as part of a diversity training program, you may have had a common reaction, regardless of the results. Frustration.
This frustration arises not only because what we learn often feels like negative information, but because simply knowing where our biases lie gives us no indication of how to address them. Without a clear path forward, beyond acknowledging that we, like most humans, have certain knee-jerk reactions to some people or to some human traits, just identifying our biases can feel like a dead end.
For this reason, I don’t find focusing on implicit biases a particularly helpful means for trying to build an inclusive culture.
But we may also want to consider that others are not much affected by whatever thoughts are running through our minds at a given moment. Instead, it’s the words we use and our specific behaviors that impact others. It’s what we say and how we act that influences whether they feel included, seen, valued, and appreciated by us. Or disrespected, overlooked, and undervalued.
Of course our biases can influence what we say and do. But in my observation, it’s easier and more effective to shift how we act and speak than to attempt to change our habitual thought patterns. As cognitive psychology teaches, it’s easier to act our way into new ways of thinking than to think our way into new ways of acting.
Practicing new behaviors also increases the likelihood that we will elicit new responses from those around us. This can result in our having more positive experiences than we may expect. These experiences in turn can help shift our thinking in a more organic way.
We’ve all experienced this. We have a preconceived notion about a specific individual. We tell ourselves a story about them based on experiences we’ve had, often with others whom we may view as being “like them.” But if we can force ourselves to suspend judgment, and to act on the assumption that they deserve the benefit of the doubt, we may elicit a response that shifts our opinion and begins to erode the bias we had.
This to me is a more pragmatic approach than trying to root out unconscious bias. Focusing on our behaviors rather than our biases is also a more positive approach. This fall, I’m going to be looking at a range of inclusive behaviors we can all use to build our capacity for working, collaborating with and enjoying people we may perceive as fundamentally different from ourselves— without the frustration of searching for unconscious bias.