Introduction: Last month, I published a very widely read blog receiving a tremendous number of hits. In “Seven Biases in the Workplace – Let’s Be Brutally Honest About It,” I challenge us all to be brutally honest about unconscious biases that can pop into our heads about the diverse co-workers we interact with, and to address it with action. Admittedly, it was a fairly rudimentary blog introducing this concept.
Intercultural Communications Trainer and Consultant, John Luecke, with whom I serve as a Raleigh Sister Cities volunteer, agreed to write a guest blog going much deeper into this important issue. Thank you, John!
John writes: Last month’s blog post identified lots of typical workplace biases, but the solution is much more complicated than just becoming aware of them and then resisting the urge to enact your biases.
After all, unconscious biases are just that – unconscious. We’re generally not aware of them, thus making it hard to correct something we don’t see in ourselves. There are relatively objective ways of assessing our unconscious biases — the Implicit Attitude Test or IAT, for example. It’s a free, self-administered online test that helps identify unconscious bias. You can take the test here https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
When I took it for potential biases toward black people and Muslims, the IAT told me that I had a “strong preference for white people.” A bit of a shock, but it didn’t call me a bigot or suggest I engaged in prejudicial actions against blacks, just that I preferred white people. Given my limited exposure to black people, this should not have been a surprise. I fared much better with Muslims, but then I’ve spent a lot of time studying Islam, Middle Eastern culture and have several Muslim friends.
For better or worse unconscious biases provide value; for example, they kept our ancestors alive when threatened by sabre tooth tigers or the warriors from the other side of the mountain. Today they continue to alert us to perceived threats and dangers.
Here’s how they work: When we see something as threatening, dangerous, or fearful our amygdala kicks in and floods our bodies with cortisol and testosterone – two hormones that allow us to quickly respond to dangers. The amygdala is a walnut-shaped structure that sits at the base of our brains and processes incoming signals. The result is a fight-flight or freeze response to danger, and it’s kept our species alive for thousands of years. The amygdala typically takes between 80 and 200 milliseconds to respond, and it shuts down our brain’s communication with our prefrontal cortex – that’s where reasonable thinking takes place.
If we can find a few seconds of stillness to let our prefrontal cortex become engaged, we can have a much more reasoned response to a perceived threat. However, if someone is coming after you with a big knife, go with the fight or flight response and let your prefrontal cortex sort things out later.
But for the kinds of perceptual threats we’re likely to encounter in the workplace – our biased reactions to the overweight employee, the millennial, the older employee — find that moment of stillness and let your reason take over from your amygdala.
Unconscious biases are part of the hard wiring of our brains. Incidentally, our brains consume approximately 20 percent of our bodies’ energy. By establishing unconscious biases, or brains conserve energy and make lots of automatic decisions. Some research suggests that up to 98 percent of what’s going on in our brains happens at an unconscious level. Problems occur when our brains make unconscious decisions about people, especially those decisions that disadvantage some people and prevent us from forming productive relationships with them.
There are lots of ways of dealing with unconscious bias beyond simply recognizing it in ourselves. One of the easiest is regular meditation – any kind of mediation. You don’t have to spend two years in a Tibetan cave, but 15 to 20 minutes a day of meditation can slow the response of your amygdala and provide time for your prefrontal cortex to engage. This includes such techniques as breath mediation, walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, etc. Meditation is only one of the many tools we can use to reduce our unconscious biases.