Is Your Bias Limiting You?
How to deal with conscious and unconscious bias effectively.
Posted July 28, 2016 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
We all have biases—whether it’s conscious or unconscious—and our biases impact the way we view the world, what we see, and how we see it. Not all of our cognitive biases are harmful. Let’s face it, the way our brains are wired for negativity and to search out danger are what have historically kept us alive. But as our biases are our perceptual filters, they dictate so much of what we do, and they can limit the full range of what we observe and take in, impacting both our behavior and our success.
I recently came across Amy Herman, who is the author of Visual Intelligence, Sharpen Your Perspective, Change Your Life. With an interesting background as both a former lawyer and an art history major at college, she works to help people shift their perceptions through viewing art. She works with everyone from the New York City police department to CEOs to enhance their observation and communication skills by viewing art as visual data, seeing what they observe and how it influences how they act.
When it comes to our own biases and how to deal with them most effectively, Amy has three main thoughts on what we should and shouldn’t do:
- Become aware of them—understand that we behave in accordance with the biases that we have, and if we don’t believe that to be true, we are just kidding ourselves. You might have biases you aren’t aware of that influence who’s in your team at work, around how you view the traits of your leaders, or about what success looks like. Starting to notice them is the first step.
- Don’t mistake biases for facts—question the assumptions you are making and ensure you aren’t assuming that your bias is a fact. The bias we hear so prevalently around women and getting to gender parity in organizations is “I really wanted to hire a woman, but there were just no candidates.” Next time you hear a male leader expressing this sentiment, ask him if that is a fact or just his bias at play (perhaps expressed by female leaders at times as well).
- Run your conclusions by other people—when you come up with a conclusion, get other people’s buy-in to ensure that your own bias is not leading you astray. Asking the simple question “Am I biased here?” Amy says that multiple perspectives make for more informed decision-making.
In her book and courses, Amy teaches that these are all skills we use by looking at works of art. We ask, “What do you see?” As we share what we see, it informs and shifts our perception.
It’s so easy when we are at work each day, busy with the stuff we have to get done, to shut ourselves off, put our heads down, and just get on with it. But when we make decisions in isolation, especially on complex projects or in hiring decisions, we run the risk of biases limiting the full spectrum of information in front of us, which could lead to better decision-making, open up possibilities and deliver enhanced outcomes.
One of the concepts Amy refers to in her book is the idea of “keeping your head on a swivel.” She reminds us of what most of our mothers used to say to us as kids, “I have eyes in the back of my head.” This is important when we think of bias and perception because if we keep our head on a swivel, constantly on the lookout for other ways to see a situation, person, problem, or project, we don’t get locked into one way of seeing something and we have the opportunity to analyze things from every angle.
A favorite quote of both Amy and myself is from Dr. Wayne Dyer, who said that “if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Most of us have looked at those pictures that are one thing when you look at them for the first time, but if you keep looking at them, they change into something completely different. Like the old woman who turns into a young girl. Or the fruit bowl that turns into an owl.
There is always another way to see something. Give yourself the opportunity to step back from what you are working on—discussions you are having, decisions you are making, and projects you are progressing—and ask yourself if there is another way to view this. Collaborate with others to check your perceptions and invite their own.
Here are three questions Amy outlines in her Art of Perception class to ask yourself when you are starting a new project, working on a complex problem, and making a decision:
- What do I definitively know about this? What is unequivocal about my assessment?
- What don’t I know about this problem? What am I missing or not seeing?
- If I had the opportunity to get more information, what do I need to know?
She highlights that you need to be able to identify not only what you see, but what is missing, to give you the most accurate picture and broaden your perception.
Think about these scenarios:
You have a new job opening in your team. You get the list of candidates. You can see that there are ten great candidates. But what’s missing? Well, first of all, there are no women on the candidate list. Second, there is no cultural diversity between the candidates. And perhaps there are no people with experience outside the norm.
Or an example Amy gives in her book: A doctor is reviewing a patient’s symptoms for pneumonia. Symptom one is present. Symptom two is present. But symptom three is missing. What is missing is the key to where the Doctor goes next.
When you are thinking about your biases in any given situation, don’t just look at what you can see, check what you are missing—and remember one of the best ways to do this, is to ask others what am I not seeing here?
We need to remember, for all of the discussion on conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace and the impact this has on women, that identifying our biases is much harder than it sounds. We have to have checkpoints in place that we can rely on to validate that the decisions we are making are the right ones. In my view, this is so relevant in all bias discussions but especially when we think about women at work and reaching gender parity.
In a world where rhetoric about overcoming bias is everywhere, but real solutions and action are rare, use these three reminders to keep yourself in check:
- Understand yourself, what you believe, and how you behave, so that you can recognize when you are acting according to a bias that you hold.
- Be objective and separate your bias from a fact. When you identify something as a fact, make sure that it really is a fact.
- Run your conclusions by other people. When you get to your conclusion, when you finish the report, and when you make the hiring decision, check in with others to ensure your bias has not limited your choices or skewed your decision-making.