The year 2020 has been referred to as the year of the dual pandemics in the United States – the global COVID-19 pandemic led to a heartbreaking loss of life in our country and the persistent pandemic of racial injustice became much more widely understood as protests erupted all over the country last summer. Organizations and leaders were challenged to respond to both.
As we make our way into the second month of the new year, our commitment to fighting the virus has yielded two highly effective COVID vaccines with a third nearing emergency approval, giving us a sense of hope that 2021 will bring relief to our struggling economy, and to our sense of isolation. And what of the other pandemic? We made unprecedented commitments to fighting that pandemic as well, with organizations making strong statements of support, pledging significant funding, and re-committing to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But this one has been with us for much longer, and will take a sustained and concerted effort to eradicate. The work to examine our systems and root out inequity may feel daunting, but like all significant change, leaders must start with looking at ourselves.
At InnerWill, we consider building self-awareness to be a foundational leadership practice for Values Based Leaders. Fully understanding ourselves takes ongoing work throughout our lives. We learn more as we observe ourselves in new situations, and we gain new knowledge from the fields of neuroscience and social psychology that help us make meaning of it all. As we learn more about ourselves, we reduce the blind spots that might be present in our leadership, and with a clearer view of ourselves, we can make more conscious choices to lead in a way that positively impacts others and aligns to our own core values.
The study of unconscious bias, also referred to as implicit bias, is important for any leader committed to inclusiveness. Understanding unconscious bias is a powerful way to begin to uncover blind spots that may be impacting our ability to lead effectively. It stems from two important concepts – the first is the “automatic” processing that our brains are designed to do. Daniel Kahnemann described this as “System 1 thinking” in his book, Thinking Fast & Slow – it is the fast and highly efficient processing our brains do in order to survive. It’s the automatic reaction our ancestors had to run from the saber-toothed tiger, and today it’s the only way our brains can survive the flood of information and decisions that we make on a daily basis. The other root of unconscious bias has to do with the associations that our brains store in order to make those highly efficient decisions. This is about our social world – our own experiences as well as what we are exposed to in society. Researcher Paul Verhaegen studied these associations by analyzing a collection of works known as the Bound Encoding of the Aggregate Language Environment (BEAGLE), a collection of over ten million words that are considered a good representation of the literature most Americans are exposed to through books, newspapers, and magazines. His research found that many of the associations that underlie common racial and gender stereotypes were found consistently in the BEAGLE collection.
The tricky thing about unconscious bias is that you are unlikely to discover it by reflecting on your thoughts alone – that’s the realm of your conscious mind. Unconscious Bias is only observable by assessing behavior and connecting it back to possible unconscious, System 1 driven associations. Scientists Tony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek founded Project Implicit in 1998 with the goal of helping people assess their unconscious biases. Their work led to the development of the Implicit Association Test, which uses reaction time – how long it takes you to connect word or pictures – to measure the strength of those unconscious stereotypes. For example, do you take longer to connect photos of white faces with negative words than those of black faces? While I found the IAT to be a helpful personal exercise, its ability to accurately predict bias has been hotly contested, and even its creators admit that its accuracy is impacted by the presence of conscious thinking — for example, one’s conscious desire to have the results come out a certain way.
Even if there isn’t a universally accepted objective measurement of bias, we can choose to be attentive to signs of potential bias, reflect on our reactions, actions and decisions, and ask ourselves questions that challenge our thinking. We can also seek feedback to help us better understand how others experience us and the environment we foster. If your team or organization is lacking diversity, examine your hiring decisions – what biases might exist about who would be passionate and successful at the work your organization does? When members of your team aren’t advancing in their careers, incorporate your awareness of the way bias functions in your assessment of what might be going on. Ask others to share their perspectives and experiences with you, especially those who don’t match the dominant culture of your team or organization – and truly listen to what they tell you.
While the study of unconscious bias began more than twenty years ago, we are still learning how to recognize and mitigate the biases that naturally form in our brains. Understanding the “short cuts” that our brains take, and the effect that those short cuts may have on our leadership will help us build more inclusive environments – and is one of the steps needed to bring to an end the “other pandemic” that captured our attention and garnered our commitment in 2020.
What are you doing to illuminate your blind spots?