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In the U.S. today, bias has become a value judgment. In reality, it’s an adaptive function of human biology.

Bias results from our ability as humans to learn, to hardwire learnings into long-term memory and to retrieve those learnings in order to respond instantaneously to familiar situations. While these instinctive reactions meant the difference between life and death for early humans, in modern times they can be highly problematic.

The ping of a new text message elicits a similar instinct to respond NOW, as did the saber tooth tiger of old. Similarly, positive biases toward those like us – who historically represented safety and comfort – and negative biases toward those we perceive as different – potentially representing danger – are remnants of our biology.

Value Judgments Get in the Way

The problem is not bias in and of itself but the value judgments attached to it. Bias is interpreted as an innate personality flaw rather than a human tendency requiring skill to overcome. In working with an assessment tool that measured ‘cultural competency’ (an ability to neutralize biases), I found people regularly overestimated their scores. Many of us assume we are not biased and respond defensively to the suggestion we are.

Ironically, the place to start in developing greater skill to minimize biases in decision making is with humility, acknowledging that you too, are biased. The journey begins with observing your own thinking and paying attention to the assumptions that fuel your judgments and lead to biases. Better understanding your own tendencies toward biased thinking enables you to learn to respond more skillfully and with greater objectivity. A growing understanding of personal biases also makes it easier to identify practices and systems that contribute to – versus counteract – inherent biases.

Confronting My Personal Biases

Let me share some experiences where I’ve had to humbly disabuse myself of the belief that I was not biased.

In analyzing the family structures of professional women and men across dozens of large companies, I consistently found stark differences in their family configurations. While the majority of men had a spouse or partner who assumed the primary care of children and home, less than 10% of women were in that situation. It seemed men, particularly white men representing the vast majority of males in these studies, had it made. They enjoyed the luxury of being able to focus on their careers because their mates managed their home lives.

Then, a successful male attorney at a big law firm, who attended a lunchtime meeting for parents, broke down. He was experiencing enormous stress trying to meet the firm’s very high expectations while simultaneously supporting his stay-at-home wife. She needed him home at a reasonable time, allowing her a break from the intensity of caring for their young children all day long. Firm partners assumed he could work whenever needed and showed little understanding of his struggle.

That incident, and others like it, brought my bias regarding men with stay-at-home partners into stark relief. I was stereotyping, making assumptions about all men with wives at home. I needed to stop generalizing and instead, seek to understand the experiences of individual men.

In another instance, earlier in my career, the organization I worked for learned through an employee engagement survey that women of color had less favorable experiences of the workplace than their white colleagues. My first response was surprise at the racial divide in the results. From my perspective, the organization was a terrific place for women, in contrast to my past employers, in investment management.

It was a clear wake-up call. I wrongfully assumed that women of color were having the same positive experience as I was. It helped me understand the limitations of my lens, shaded by my experience as a professional white woman.

Refocusing on What’s Most Important in Decision Making

Recently, a male friend shared the experience of noticing his inherent biases when he was considering two finalist candidates for a scientific position. Based on phone interviews, one of the candidates was more experienced but seemed entitled and focused on hierarchy, while the second reminded my friend of himself – highly competent but not pushy and favoring a team approach. In person, the more relaxed candidate turned out to be very overweight, which my friend acknowledged was challenging for him, and the more experienced candidate presented as intense and overbearing (also surfacing a negative bias). Becoming very aware of his automatic reactions, he realized the need to step back and refocus on the job and team requirements rather than be swayed by his knee-jerk reactions.

Combating biases is a skill, one that requires ongoing practice and a long-term perspective. Elements of the bias-breaking toolkit include:

  • Noticing your reactions, questioning assumptions and identifying biases as they occur
  • Observing, listening and learning from the experience of others to deepen your understanding and expand your perspective
  • Not assuming others see the world through your eyes but instead trying to walk a mental mile in their shoes
  • Experimenting with new responses and ways of thinking
  • Strengthening your ability, through time, to manage your own biases – and identify them in others – far more effectively

Good luck with your journey of discovery and growing skill to replace biases with empathy and more robust decision making.