How do you as a leader defeat unconscious bias in your organizational culture? First, you need to know what it is.
Unconscious bias refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on. Unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live.
For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example – a geographic instead of one across time – most people in the US don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.
Fortunately, research on fighting cognitive biases in professional settings shows that we can overcome these dangerous judgment errors effectively by using research-based strategies and decision-making tools to do so. For instance, we can make wise financial decisions by using decision aid websites such as this one that limit our choices to the top ten options. The same applies to fighting cognitive biases in people decisions to overcome unconscious bias.
For example, Black Americans suffer from police harassment and violence at a much higher rate than white people, some people (usually white) occasionally try to defend the police by claiming that Black people are more violent and likely to break the law than whites. They thus attribute police harassment to their perceived characteristics of black people (implying that it is deserved), not to the external context of police behavior.
Research shows that Black Americans are harassed and harmed by police at a much higher rate for the same kind of activity. A white person walking by a cop, for example, is statistically much less likely to be stopped and frisked than a black one. And a white person resisting arrest is much less likely to be violently beaten than a black one. In other words, statistics show that the higher rate of harassment and violence against Black Americans by police is due to the prejudice of the police officers, at least to a large extent.
However, this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes, it indeed is deliberate, with white police officers consciously believing that black Americans deserve much more scrutiny than whites. At other times, the discriminatory behavior results from unconscious thought processes that the police officer would not consciously endorse.
The Role of Organizational Culture
Sometimes these attitudes come – at least to a significant extent – from internal cultures within police departments. Such cultures are perpetuated by internal norms, policies, and training procedures, and any police department wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than attributing racism to individual officers. In other words, instead of saying it’s a few bad apples in a barrel of overall good ones, the key is recognizing that unconscious bias is a systemic issue, and the structure and joints of the barrel needs to be fixed.
How to Make Real Change
The crucial thing to highlight is that there is no shame or blame in unconscious bias, as it’s not stemming from any fault in the individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight defensive response among reluctant audiences, helping them hear and accept the issue.
Still, it can be much more comforting to feel that police officers are right and anyone targeted by police deserves it; and, some people might be highly reluctant to accept the need to focus more efforts and energy on protecting Black Americans from police violence, due to the structural challenges they face.
The issue of unconscious bias doesn’t match their intuitions and thus they reject this concept, despite extensive and strong evidence. It takes a series of subsequent follow-up conversations and interventions to move the needle. A single training is almost never sufficient, both in my experience and according to research.
This example of how to defeat unconscious bias illustrates broader patterns you need to follow to address such problems in order to address unconscious bias to make the best people decisions. After all, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgment choices, when we simply follow our intuitions.
1) Instead, you need to start by learning about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias yourself, so that you know what you’re trying to address.
2) Then, you need to convey to people who you want to influence, such as your employees or any other group or even yourself, that there should be no shame or guilt in acknowledging our instincts.
3) Next, you need to convey the dangers associated with following their intuitions, to build up an emotional investment into changing behaviors.
4) Then, you need to convey the right mental habits that will help them make the best choices.
Remember, a one-time training is insufficient for doing so. It takes a long-term commitment and constant discipline and efforts from you as a leader to defeat unconscious bias in your organizational culture.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally-renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic (Changemakers Books, 2020). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, Fortune, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise stems from his background of over 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking, and training and from his research background as a behavioral scientist with over 15 years in academia, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.