"Mitigating Unconscious Bias in the World of OD"
By: Julian Chender, Brand Marketing Manager, Cook Ross
In the last year, the public awareness of “unconscious bias” has ballooned as we have repeatedly witnessed instances of police officers killing unarmed African Americans.
Unconscious bias—also known as implicit bias—is a tendency to make mental associations that result in judgment without awareness, intention or control. Research into this human phenomenon shows that our unconscious beliefs and automatic assumptions often drive our decision-making process whether we are chasing a suspect or driving our children to school.
This means that the puppets in the Broadway musical Avenue Q were right: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” And we are all probably sexist, classist and every other “-ist” too. But there is good news: If we take responsibility for the natural process of unconscious bias, we can work with our minds to reduce its impact.
While we continue to discuss the most egregious instances of unconscious bias as a society, it is important that we simultaneously examine our own unconscious biases. As people interested in Organization Development and its humanistic underpinnings—whether you are a seasoned practitioner or just now discovering the field—it is incumbent upon us to study our unconscious biases, how they impact our work and what we can do to mitigate the negative outcomes.
First, it is important to understand that unconscious bias is not inherently bad.
As Howard Ross explains in his seminal book on the topic, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (2014), unconscious bias developed as an evolutionary advantage. Those humans who conflated danger with another phenomenon—such as the sound of rustling grass—survived predators more readily than those who stuck around to investigate the sound in the grass. Making the mental shortcut “rustling grass equals danger” saved lives.
Now, we humans make mental shortcuts like this one all the time. Sometimes they are positive (“I like this person because they remind me of my favorite aunt”) and sometimes they are negative (“I don’t want to promote that person because they belong to a certain group”). And often they are unconscious.
So what does this mean for us as Organization Development professionals?
We can work with unconscious bias as part of our continued journey into “Use of Self”—how we show up in relationship with our coworkers, colleagues, clients and even our families. Our unconscious biases are part of our “shadow side,” the hidden self that resides in our blind spots. They affect our reactions to individuals and groups,and to our own work situations. Furthermore, unconscious biases impact the way we take in and make meaning of data in our experience.
While we cannot rid ourselves of the mechanism of unconscious bias, we can mitigate the impact our biases have on the way we show up to our work lives. The first step is to acknowledge that we all have unconscious biases. Then, we can develop awareness of the biases and try to bring them from the unconscious realm to consciousness. Self-observation and reflective practices like journaling are particularly helpful here. The third step requires action: making a choice about how to react when a bias arises. This is an evolving practice of moving from automatic reaction to purposeful action.
As we travel this path together, it might be helpful to remember Howard Ross’s P.A.U.S.E. mnemonic:
Pay attention to what’s actually happening beneath the judgments and assumptions.
Acknowledge your own reactions, interpretations and judgments.
Understand the other possible reactions, interpretations and judgments that may be possible.
Search for the most constructive, empowering and productive way to deal with the situation.
Execute your action plan.
In examining our unconscious biases, we may look back on decisions we made and see that we unknowingly acted out of bias. When we see that, it is important that we not take on a feeling of guilt. Everyone has acted out of unconscious bias and having done so does not make you a “bad person.” Rather, we can look at our awareness of unconscious bias as a great opportunity. If we can drop any feelings of guilt and instead take responsibility for working with our minds, we can go forward in a way that greatly reduces the impact of our unconscious biases.
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About the Author
Written by: Julian Chender, Brand Marketing Manager, Cook Ross
Julian Chender is the Brand Marketing Manager at Cook Ross, an Organization Development consulting firm specializing in diversity and inclusion. He is also the founder of Chender Coaching and Consulting, through which he currently works with college students on leadership development. He serves on the OD Network's Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He would like to thank his mentor Judith Katz for introducing him to the Network, and Matt Minahan for welcoming and guiding him.
Julian received a Bachelor's Degree from Swarthmore College, and he is pursuing a Master of Science in Organization Development at American University. In addition, he has trained with the Authentic Leadership in Action Institute, the Presencing Institute and the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, where he is a certified Human Systems Dynamics Practitioner. You can reach Julian at email@example.com