Moving from Unconscious Bias to Unconscious Inclusion

Unconscious, or implicit bias, is something that we are learning about here at BerganKDV. Our goal is to move our thoughts and actions along a spectrum toward an environment where we are unconsciously inclusive. It looks like this:

Recently we held a firm-wide training on what unconscious bias is and strategies we can work on to move the needle on this subject as part of our firm’s diversity and inclusion initiative called #Perspective. As a firm, we recognize we have work to do and we need to become agents of change to improve opportunities for all. The logical first step is to understand what we mean when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and the difference between equality and equity.

When we talk about diversity, we are referring to the variety of differences among people.

The list of differences could include but are not limited to: gender, gender identity, ethnicity, race, origin, age, generation, sexual orientation, culture, religion, belief system, marital or parental status, socioeconomic difference, appearance, language and accent, disability, mental health, education, geography, work style, work experience, job role and function, thinking style, and personality type. These are the things that make up our identity and our interests. And we also develop natural unconscious bias based on these traits and interests.

Inclusion is defined as a dynamic state of operating in which diversity is leveraged to create a fair, healthy, and high performing organization or community.

An inclusive environment ensures equitable access to resources and opportunities for all. It also enables individuals and groups to feel safe, respected, engaged, motivated, and valued, for who they are and for their contributions toward organizational and societal goals. It does not mean that everyone is all the same all the time.

Notice in the definition of inclusion that it is an environment that ensures equitable – not equal – access to resources and opportunities for all. The distinction between the two is that equality means everyone gets the same resources. Equity is about being fair and impartial. The picture below is a great visual to show the difference:

The tricky thing about unconscious biases is that they are involuntarily formed prejudices in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another. And whether it is a positive or negative bias, it can result in pre-judgements that lead to rash decisions or discriminatory practices. And we all have these biases.

So why do we have these implicit biases? Psychologist Daniel Kahneman proposed the 2-system brain theory.  Essentially, we have two different operating systems running on the same computer.

System 1 (our Fast Brain) is an athlete  – fast, responsive, intuitive.

It decides and moves quickly.  We are bombarded by millions of pieces of information at one time, but our brain can only consciously process about 40 bits of information at one time.  So, System 1 kicks in and creates mental short cuts, rules that help make sense of the world and make decisions quickly!  System 1 is all about survival in the face of danger. If you’re hiking in a forest and come across a bear, System 1 is what floods your body with adrenaline, sends a surge of power to your muscles, and has you running at top speed before your rational mind fully registers what’s happening.

System 2 (our Intentional Thought) is more like a chess player.

It moves like a tortoise in comparison to System 1 because it requires slow and deliberate thought to make complex judgments or solve hard problems. System 2 is powered by a different part of your brain: the frontal cortex. Some call the frontal cortex “the CEO of the brain” because it controls executive function and is used to make conscious decisions. When you do your taxes, you’re using System 2. When you weigh the pros and cons of starting a business or buying a house, you are using System 2. Basically, any time you come across a problem that requires thinking things through, you’re using System 2. Most people use System 2 a far smaller percentage of the time (around 5%) than they use System 1 (around 95%). That’s because System 2 is “cognitively expensive.” It takes a lot of energy to run.

The challenge with this is that the shortcuts of System 1 are all too often wrong or incomplete. Important decisions are usually better served by System 2 — that slow, deliberate, and cognitively expensive process. Another problem is that System 1 is directly connected to the emotional center of the brain. This is a feature, not a bug, because emotion gets the body moving as a form of survival response. But you don’t want the emotional triggers of System 1 impeding important decisions. It’s the wrong system for the job!

How can we better use our System 2 brain to help us recognize when we may be experiencing unconscious bias? Here are some ideas:

  • First and foremost, slow down and recognize that you do have these biases.
  • Honestly examine your own attitudes for evidence of what your implicit biases are and acknowledge them. Ask yourself, “Is this decision based on things I really know about this person or is it just a ‘feeling’ that I have?”
  • Work to see things as they are versus who you are and identify your bias triggers by locating times, places and circumstances when you have not treated someone fairly.
  • And lastly, intentionally push yourself outside of your comfort zone by connecting with someone you might not otherwise speak with and listen to their perspectives on things with no assumptions or judgements.

Slowing down and taking the time to work on awareness around bias helps within the workplace in many ways: recruiting and hiring, promotions and performance reviews, staffing opportunities, how team members collaborate and eliminating harassment and discrimination.

It isn’t enough to know about or even to recognize bias.  You must also have open dialogue about it to help you and your organization grow. Actively engaging in conversations around bias may feel awkward or uncomfortable but these channels of communication must be opened in order to move to a point where we are unconsciously inclusive.

Creating a diverse and inclusive culture is an ongoing priority and one that our firm gladly embraces. I encourage you to reach out if you have ideas to share from what you have experienced in your own company or if you have questions that we can help you with as you work on your own diversity and inclusion journey. Start here.

CATEGORIES: Workforce Management

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