Perception is Truth
Over the last few years, you may have noticed an increase in the number of articles about unconscious bias and how it impacts the behaviors of leaders and their teams as well as the cultural fabric of an organization. It is also very likely that you’ve even engaged in multiple conversations (both public and private) about the urgency of creating a “more human” workplace. Despite pervasive talk about our differences (and efforts at corresponding celebrations of those differences), what we have in common is much more pertinent to this conversation.
Our desire to feel valued, contribute value and live a meaningful life is held by each of us as part of a shared and common humanity. Sometimes, it is hard to remember that we are all someone’s precious child. We all want to be happy, successful, connected, supported, engaged and more. And yet, we frequently experience fear, insecurity and moments of vulnerability. We also bring our perceptions – the lens through which we view life – to interactions holding firmly to the belief that what we see is THE truth. If you don’t believe me, consider this parable one of my mentors shared: If you ask a bird and a fish what a boat looks like, they will each give you a different description – and both will be correct based on what they see.
With this contextual backdrop, it is easy to see how we’ve contributed to existing dynamics and human interactions at work. Good, bad or otherwise, we are each simultaneously part of the workplace and co-creators of its conditions.
Discovery & Awareness
Let’s say for the sake of argument, that we agree with the assumption that perception is truth and that our perceptions are formed by our life experiences, feelings, and interactions. With this understanding, we then can begin to see the fertile ground that exists for the cultivation of unconscious bias to flourish. While there exists several definitions for this term (and several types of biases), the University of California San Francisco describes unconscious bias as the:
[S]ocial stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.
As you can see, unconscious bias is actually an intangible state of mind. Insight Education Systems eloquently explains the nature of unconscious bias in this way - one cannot do an unconscious bias, just as:
- One cannot “DO” a position – We hold a position.
- One cannot “DO” a filter – We form filters.
- One cannot “DO” a conclusion – We reach a conclusion.
Action & Impact
If unconscious bias is an intangible state of mind, how do we begin to change our minds and corresponding mindsets and behaviors? As a species, our brain is hardwired to scan for threats. One of the ways we interpret threat -- and a primary way unconscious bias shows up -- is through our association with people. More specifically, with people we consider to be part of our “in group” (people like us) or part of our “out group” (people not like us). Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, has done some interesting work in this area revealing that a single word label can change our brain’s pre-conscious response to another person. Even more notably, in one experiment, the research suggests that our empathetic responses to those we consider part of an out group were significantly lower than that expressed for those in our in group. Conclusion: Whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, sports team or political affiliation, or other factors, the brain activity reveals that we tend to be less empathetic to people we see as dissimilar to ourselves.
Shifting from “Diversity & Inclusion” to “Belonging & Unity”
So, the $64,000 question is: Where does that leave us with unconscious bias and how do we identify, reconcile and manage it within ourselves? First, it is important to note that we all have biases – conscious and unconscious. These do not make us bad people. They are simply part of the human condition. However, it is not enough to simply be aware of our biases. It is also critically important for us to understand, acknowledge and manage their impact on our thoughts, feelings, decisions and behaviors so that we do not create ripples of disparate impact or micro-inequalities (evolving into overarching problems of equity) through our daily work. (For a closer look, consider these three examples illustrating the importance and impact of this work across roles and industries: orchestras and musicians, educators, and leadership decision-making.)
To bridge the gap between awareness and impact, I am suggesting that we look at two key strategies that would be necessary complements to other work in this space. The first is to change the historical focus and terminology of diversity and inclusion (D&I) to a new and more expansive, “belonging and unity” conversation. Given our shifting demographics and generational differences, the D&I label and terminology may not adequately invite or ignite a more evolved and more human workplace that focuses on all people across the stakeholder diaspora. Additionally, belonging and unity may more effectively conjure feelings and visions of a table to which everyone has a seat and a voice, thereby, inspiring desired connection and inclusion.
Seeing Similarities & Offering Kindness
Research has shown that, “the brain is well-equipped for controlling unwanted biases – if the person detects their presence.” Leveraging this, and once we evolve our terminology to match our more elevated ecosystems, the second complementary strategy is to engage in practices that help broaden our definition of “in group.” There are two practices borrowed from contemplative traditions, in particular, that help bridge the gap between awareness and our capacity for connection and reduced bias. These are (i) seeing similarities between ourselves and others (i.e. expanding our in group), and (ii) offering kindness (i.e. extending empathy and compassion to others). To be effective, these must be honed and sustained with regular practice and application over time in order to create shifts in mindsets and mitigate the adverse impact of unconscious bias as suggested in a 2014 study published in the NeuroLeadership Journal. In this study, researchers Lieberman, Rock and Cox, noted a meaningful correlation between the contemplative practice of meditation and a resulting reduction in unconscious bias specifically related to age and race.
The practice of Seeing Similarities is just what it sounds like – finding commonalities and points of connection between yourself and those you perceive as different from you. This can be done in a dedicated practice where you set aside time each day to meditate, for example, with the intention of calling to mind others you perceive are different from you, with whom you find it difficult to engage or who are otherwise disconnected from you. This practice also can be done as an integrated practice that you weave throughout your day as you engage in meetings, telephone calls, emails, etc. with others. Whether done as a dedicated or an integrated practice, you may begin by bringing gentle awareness to your breath and calling to mind similarities you have with the person or persons noted above. Simply call them to mind repeating phrases such as, “Miguel wishes to be successful, just like me . . . . Miguel has hopes and dreams, just like me . . . . Miguel has experienced fear and disappointment, just like me . . . . Miguel is a human being, just like me,” or any other phrases that help create meaningful connection for you.
The companion to this practice, which also can be done in dedicated or integrated fashion, is Offering Kindness through the extension of intentional wishes. In this instance, you might want to say something like, “May Samantha be happy, healthy and successful . . . . May Samantha be free of pain and suffering . . . . May Samantha feel loved, connected and valued,” or extend any other wishes that feel right to you in the moment. Admittedly, for many, these practices may seem a little strange and even awkward at first. However, with sustained practice, you will begin to notice a shift in your awareness and ability to see how you are perceiving others and, most importantly, how you are interacting with and treating them which then can lead to an enhanced capacity to make compassionate and choiceful responses rather than engage in unconscious or compulsive reactions.
While there are many ways to address unconscious bias, the above contemplative practices may be effective at mitigating its impact because they activate areas of the brain associated with empathy, compassion and executive reasoning (e.g., the anterior cingulate cortex, insula and pre-frontal cortex), while helping to down regulate signals from the part of our brain that is responsible for emotions and threat detection.
Meet Michelle Maldonado
On Friday, March 16, Strategic Alliances will host Empathy in the Workplace, a three-hour learning experience with Dr. Joann Farrell Quinn. Click here to learn more.