When we're very young, our brains develop an ability to group and make strong distinctions between items. This quick and seamless categorization often occurs subconsciously; it’s a survival skill that enables us to distinguish safety from harm—food from poison. As much as it helps us to get by, our need to constantly define and categorize everything is also a source of implicit and personal bias.
This type of bias impacts everything, from whom we’re willing to give the benefit of a doubt, to the hiring decisions we make. It is therefore something that everyone—and especially managers—must commit to exploring and challenging. This article outlines a few steps people in positions of leadership, across various sectors and levels of seniority, can take to investigate and reduce their own biases, while setting the tone for their workplaces and teams to follow suit.
Self-awareness comes first
Our implicit biases are often at odds with the values we hold; this makes them difficult to identify and confront. Acknowledging that everyone has implicit biases and makes unconscious associations can be discouraging, but it shouldn’t be. Everyone also has the capacity to unlearn these biases and change their behaviors. The first step is to start paying attention to our behaviors and investigating the unconscious thoughts that drive them. The American Academy of Family Physicians presents eight responses, which can be remembered by the acronym IMPLICIT to help interrupt our implicit biases:
- Introspection: Taking time to reflect on your thoughts and actions will help you to discover and recognize your own biases.
- Mindfulness: Mind your stress and practice self-care, so that in moments of stress and pressure you’re better equipped to maintain composure and be deliberate about your actions and words.
- Perspective-taking: Make time to consider and learn about perspectives that may differ from your own. Commit to improving your empathy skills and listen carefully when people discuss their experiences with you. Expand your frame of reference by engaging with diverse media and groups of people with an open mind.
- Learn to slow down: Take a breath and pause for a moment to reflect before you speak or act. Over time this will help minimize reflexive responses that stem from unconscious bias.
- Individuation: Interact with people as individuals, rather than as representatives of a particular group. This is particularly important if you are committed to hiring and developing an inclusive team.
- Check your messaging: Analyze the way your team and organization talk about diversity and difference. Is it tokenized? Overly optimistic?
- Institutionalize fairness: Review what your organization is doing to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Are there policies in place to reduce bias when it comes to hiring and promotions? Are there standards and transparency around assessments used to rate job applicants and employee performance?
- Take two: Brace yourself to restart this process time after time, and to be open to new ways to improve and move the work forward.
Overcoming bias is a journey, not a checklist
Bias doesn’t go away overnight, and there is always going to be more work to do. Addressing your individual and personal bias is an important starting point., But there are other ways you can continue to work towards fostering inclusive and equitable workplaces.
- Talk about the self-work you’re doing. There are two great reasons to tell colleagues that you’re committed to doing the ongoing work of addressing your own biases. The first is that by being transparent, you invite others to hold you accountable. The second is that in talking openly about your journey, you may inspire others to also explore their biases. This kind of openness and vulnerability leads to greater trust and understanding.
- Watch what you say and how you say it. Take note of the language you use, as our words often reflect our unconscious biases. Make a point to stop using language that isn’t inclusive.
- Apologize when you get something wrong, correct yourself, and keep trying. Though it may be embarrassing or shameful, we’re all going to make mistakes as we learn and grow. Others will be reminded that you too are human, no one is perfect, and we’re all in this together.
- Address microaggressions and speak up when someone says or does something harmful. Even if you aren’t sure what exactly to say, it’s important that you let your team know you recognize there’s a problem and are going to follow up accordingly. If you're silent during one of these moments you risk leaving members of your team feeling isolated, unsupported, or unseen. Focus on what was said, not who said it, and create an opportunity for everyone on your team to reflect and learn.
- Individual and team efforts are vital but insufficient on their own. Systemic and structural biases and issues must also be addressed as we strive to ensure our offices are inclusive. Advocating for institutional change is another critical part of the journey. Be in constant dialogue with your team about their ideas and hopes, and commit to raising their concerns around equity.
Online resources and trainings
There’s no shortage of trainings, webinars, and articles that address ways to reduce and confront personal bias.
- Take an implicit association test. While this can be key in helping you identify your own biases and stereotypes, remember that this is not enough on its own. Until you take steps to interrupt and alter your behaviors, you won’t get anywhere.
- Unconscious Bias: What’s Next? is a short e-course on LinkedIn Learning that defines various types of bias, explores how they manifest at work, and offers strategies for overcoming organizational bias.
- Watch How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias (TEDxPasadena). Author and CEO Valerie Alexander outlines how our brains respond to the unfamiliar and what we can do about it.
- For a deeper dive, consider taking a full course related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Have certain tools or practices helped you interrupt your own implicit bias? Tell us about it on Facebook.
Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.