Montgomery Business Journal

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Battling Unconscious Bias

September 2015

Joe Gerstandt is a co-author of Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships, and one of the featured speakers at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Diversity Summit. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.Joe Gerstandt

Montgomery Business Journal: You write that many leaders and organizations understand that diversity means difference and the importance of it, but “few” understand the dynamics that get in the way. What are those dynamics that get in the way?  Gerstandt: There are probably a number of different things, but I think there are two basic answers to that question. One is that a lot of leaders don’t realize that as you bring more diversity into an organization or a group or a process, you also bring in more potential for tension and conflict into that group or process. Conflict done the right way – there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, it’s a valuable thing, but to benefit from that diversity, one of the things you have to be able to deal with… you have to be able to have a healthy relationship with conflict. You need to have the right kind of conflict – respectful disagreements. A lot of organizations are not very good at that and management as well.

What is the other basic factor?  It is what I’m planning to talk about when I come to Montgomery and that is the – it’s not brand new, but it’s still fairly new – emerging field of unconscious bias or unintentional bias.

I read that on your blog. By definition, we don’t realize it.  Right. Kind of the mindset behind much of what is done in the name of diversity and inclusion today is based on the idea that there are good people in the world and good people are open-minded and not judgmental and not biased. And then there are bad people and bad people are biased. The work is kind of about finding the bad ones and fixing them. That’s the mindset that’s behind a lot of this work and we know enough today about human beings and especially the human brain to know that actually there is no such thing as a non-judgmental human being. You might not have hatred in your heart – it doesn’t require that – but part of the brain has a job to do. It’s trying to keep you alive. In order to keep you alive, it’s jumping to conclusions and making assumptions all the time – constantly. It does that outside our conscious awareness because it’s a lot faster that way. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing – it’s just a true thing. There are pros and cons to it.

What can we do about it?  One of the things we can do as we come to a better understanding of this, we can take a look at the decisions that we make about people. For instance, who to hire; who not to hire; who to promote – those types of things – with an understanding of behavioral economics and the new brain science – we can take a look at those decision-making processes. Rather than believe they are unbiased because we are good people with good intentions, we can look at those processes realizing that we may have good intentions, but we’re still naturally and automatically biased. Are we doing anything to mitigate that bias? Do we mitigate the impact of that bias in some of these formal decisions that we make about human beings?

Are you going to talk about how to mitigate those unintentional biases? Will that be the thrust of the speech?  Yes, the thrust of it is unpacking a little bit of what we’ve learned – some of the new science; some of our new understandings about human nature that have (come) in the past 10 years. I’m going to talk a little bit about what unconscious bias is; why it happens and where it comes from, but the other part of that is, so what do we do about it? There is some individual stuff, but there is also some organizational stuff that we can do. It really helps us get closer to that place where we are actually able to hire the best person for the job. The problem is, a lot of folks already think they’re good at that, but we’re not. We are a little bit more naturally wired to identify people that we’re comfortable with. That has often times a lot to do with people that we think are like us.

Is it possible to reduce most of our unintentional biases?  I don’t know if people completely eliminate it, but I do know and I believe very strongly that you can use things to reduce the impact of it. One the individual level, there is some pretty good research that shows that just being aware of the fact that we have unconscious bias, you’ve already started to reduce it because you’re thinking about your decision-making with that in mind. You’re just more aware of it. A pretty powerful practice is making sure that you have relationships with people from a lot of different social groups. There’s some research that says as long as I have real-life relationships from this particular social group, I’m much less likely to be influenced by stereotypes. Absent those relationships, the fear is that even if I’m an intelligent, rational human being, I know that … my brain knows what a stereotype is and it has undue influence without those real-life relationships.

Are there some individual things a person can do to reduce their unintentional biases?  Some individual things you can do to be more aware of it is look for and challenge assumptions; to expose yourself to different stimuli and different relationships with people from different groups, but there are also things you can do that are more about operational ideas.

Such as?  In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell – it’s maybe 10 years old already – but it’s kind of about this topic. It’s about unconscious, automatic decision-making. He tells the story toward the end of the book about orchestra musicians. If you go back to around 1980, most of the musicians in the big orchestras in this country and in Europe were men. Every once in a while there was the claim of gender bias. The orchestra conductors that were making those choices couldn’t be more offended every time they were accused of gender bias because they felt that was just ridiculous. We believed that all they cared about was talent. In the middle 1980s, they started changing the audition process. Now, when you auditioned for an orchestra spot, you did so behind a screen. They (conductors) no longer knew who the music was coming from and guess what changed immediately?

The number of women in orchestras.  Yes, the number of women, and it’s almost at parity today. You could say that I think those guys (conductors) were actually biased and they just didn’t want to admit it and there could have been some of that. But I think a lot of that was probably unconscious bias. Not a lot of us interview for jobs behind screens, but are there things we can do to remove some of that stuff especially early on in the process.

Does this refer to one of your blogs about first thought vs. second thought?  Yes.

People can easily adopt that process of focusing on their second thoughts.  Right, and what is the first thought based on. It’s usually not based on much in the way of new information. It’s based on what you see in front of you and essentially based on what meaning you assign to that. I get to speak at quite a few conferences and not always, but sometimes I’m very under-dressed to speak at a conference. I show up in T-shirts and tattoos showing and jeans and tennis shoes. And I talk about this very topic. After I talk, usually someone will run up to me in the hallway and say, ‘I just love the way that you dress. You’re just down-to-earth and relatable. You’re different than all these other speakers in their big business suits’, and I say, ‘Thank you very much.’ Then what usually happens a day or two later, I get an email from somebody that was in the exact same session and they say, ‘Dear Mr. Gerstandt, I enjoyed your session. I probably could have taken you a little bit more seriously if you would have been dressed more professional.’ Two, competent, fully-formed adults in the same session looking at the same image…The point is that it meant something different to each one of them. The way that I’m dressed at that conference doesn’t mean that I’m down-to-earth or relatable or authentic. It might mean that my suitcase didn’t make the trip with me. It also doesn’t mean that I’m unprofessional, but it means something to them. Most stuff that we see and hear – social stimuli – doesn’t come with a lot of meaning. It’s often times pretty vague.

Where does the meaning come from?  The meaning comes from the context and their perspective. There is a lot of choice and a lot of interpretation going on that we’re doing automatically. We’re not even thinking about it. We’re looking at stuff and we’re giving it meaning. We think that it’s positive or we think that it’s negative and it’s not necessarily any of those things. Just by keeping that in front of us and remembering that our brain is making decisions; making choices; jumping to conclusions – we can do a better job of keeping an eye on the difference between things that we know about people and things that we think we know. A lot of times there is a big difference.

A huge difference. Please talk about how diversity and inclusion lead to creativity and innovation. I’m not sure if company executives and business owners realize that connection.  This is a part of the conversation that is as relevant and timely now as it ever has been because there is so much focus on innovation. If you really break innovation down to its basic architecture, what you find is that there is usually the tension of difference somewhere in there. There are different ideas; different experiences; different identities; different perspectives bumping into each other. That’s usually at the root of creativity and innovation. Organizations need to be able to consistently bring different experiences; different identities; different ways of thinking into their organization and make sure that – going back to what I said earlier about conflict – not only teams come together with some diversity, but they are also willing and able to share that diversity. We seem to be kind of operating under the idea that if we just hired talented individuals and put them together we will have talented teams or smart teams or creative teams. At the group level, it doesn’t really work that way because individual ability becomes a small variable. What becomes a really big variable especially for things like problem solving and decision-making is a certain amount of difference and the willingness and ability to share – the ability to disagree with each other respectfully; the ability to challenge each other is kind of at the root of group creativity and innovation. You have to be able to first source that difference and you’ve got to make sure that you create spaces where three to four people share that difference.

Please talk about the differences between assimilation and inclusion and how that impacts a company or an organization.  It kind of comes down to how you define those two things: assimilation and inclusion are defined in different ways. Most organizations and most teams that think they are inclusive are actually pretty assimilatory in nature. The difference between the two as I see them is that assimilation means that I can join a team; I can be a member; I can be an insider; I can sit in and belong. But for me to do that there are some unwritten rules about what it means to be a member. There are unwritten rules and they not about the organizational values; they are not about the performance standards; they are not about explicit written policy, but they are about the other kind of unwritten rules that we tend to make up and operate on in our (workplace). There may be an explicit drug policy, but there may be some unwritten expectations about how we dress in this department or where we sit when we have our team meeting or what roles do we play.

How do you define inclusion?  Inclusion is different than assimilation. Inclusion is I can sit in; I can be wrong; I can be an insider here and I’m different than everybody else. We know that and it’s OK. It’s just part of the deal. Assimilation is focusing on the belonging … and I’ve got to play down some aspects of my personality or identity. I’ve got to stick a little bit more neatly in, where inclusion is not about that. The key is individual authenticity; you’re different and that’s a good thing. Most organizations have a lot of unwritten rules and a lot of those unwritten rules not only do they not come from the organizational values or the performance standards or explicit policy expectations – they actually run counter to those things.

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