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Is Your Mind Infected?

If you knew that a virus had infected your computer, how quickly would you act to neutralize it?

Well, there is ample evidence to suggest that bias cycles, or what we call the Virus of Bias™, work in our minds just like viruses do in computers, damaging our organizations and inhibiting our leaders’ ability to see clearly and make well-informed decisions.

As we begin this exploration with you, we’ll start in the same place we do with organizations, by explaining just what a bias is.

A bias—in its simplest form—is a slanted view, an angle, a perspective, a slice of the whole picture that is, by its very nature, incomplete and inaccurate.

In terms of brain function, biases are shortcuts our brains make in order to become more efficient. For example, if A equaled B last time, our brains assume it likely will be the same again, and again, and again. The challenge is that we live in such rapidly-changing world that these shortcuts can often lead us astray. When these shortcuts limit how we assess the capability, value, and viability of our people, we’re corrupting our ability to really see who is may be fit or not fit for certain roles or responsibilities.

So, how do limiting biases make their way into our thinking? After all, most people feel they’re fair-minded individuals with good intentions.

Research shows that biases become woven into the fabric of our collective stories over time and then spread throughout our social networks in conscious and unconscious ways. The Harvard Implicit Association Test has shown that unconscious biases about people are particularly pervasive, embedding themselves into our social consciousness and subconscious minds via something akin to mental osmosis.

It’s easy to understand how this happens when we know how the brain works. Studies have shown, for example, that much of what we’re exposed to enters our memory banks unfiltered. In fact, it’s estimated that our conscious mind is only able to process 1% to 1.5% of all of the information we’re exposed to. With that in mind, what imagery and beliefs do you think might be subliminally implanting themselves in your mind each day?

Whether it happens by word-of-mouth from family or friends, regular messages broadcast on social media, or the power of imagery and stories on the news and in the dramatic programming of television and films, biases about others (and ourselves) infiltrate our subconscious minds all the time. Just take the Harvard Test to see how you’ve been impacted.

Let’s consider implications. If our brains have created shortcuts based prior experience, we now have a slanted perspective that does not accurately represent an individual or group. This means that our assessment of that person’s or group’s capability will be wrong. We may be over-utilizing people—if the bias is positive—or under-utilizing them—if the bias is negative. Either way, we’re missing out on the additional knowledge and information that could be vital in finding the best solution or in leveraging talent the most effectively.

So, what can we do about all of this? How can we prevent what we call ”the Virus of Bias” from infecting our decision-making and then spreading to those around us through the subtle inferences we make about others?

The answer is actually quite simple. As a recent video from Google suggests, we need to “make the unconscious conscious.” In other words, we need to start asking ourselves better questions about the decisions we make and the reasons why we choose one person over another or why we listen to one person closely while tuning someone else out.

Case in point: After attending one of our workshops on unconscious bias, a client now assigns someone in each meeting to play the role of “bias monitor.” This applies to any meeting where important decisions are being made, especially decisions that impact peoples’ futures.

The job of the Bias Monitor is to listen for the telltale signs of bias: assumptions being made, someone’s input being ignored, credit or blame being given to one person and withheld from another. The monitor calls this out by saying something like, “ Hold on. Looks like some biased thinking is slipping into our conversation.” Notice that they point to collective responsibility. It’s “our thinking.”

We won’t have an assigned bias monitor in our personal activities, but we can become our own. We can ask ourselves questions to surface possible unconscious biases. Here are just a few steps that we as individuals can take to guard against the limiting effects of unconscious bias:

  1. Remember that we are all vulnerable to the Virus of Bias.

  2. Regularly question your assumptions and stories about others and situations.

  3. Stand upstream and follow the ripple effect of how such assumption or stories could play out if you continued as is.

  4. Purposefully generate a new more productive story that casts people in a more powerful light.

  5. Create an environment where it’s safe to raise the question about how biases might have entered into our thinking (bias monitor).

  6. Consciously replace stereotypes when you discover them in your thinking with examples that run counter to those biased ideas (find an examples that run counter to the stereotype).

  7. Take an “inclusion inventory” to reconsider who we could involve in a meeting, process, or decision who could bring a fresh perspective.

  8. Intentionally reach out across the inclusion continuum to involve different people, including those who may disagree with you (this creates a more complete perspective and generates buy-in).

In our rapidly-changing, fast-paced world, it’s essential to make the best decisions possible, to break the patterns and legacy of our past mistakes and create new solutions appropriate for the world we now live in. Our individual and collective futures depend upon this.

So, let’s create an environment together where we jointly own the responsibility for identifying when we have allowed the Virus of Bias to infect our thinking. If we can do this, the world will not only run more effectively and productively, but it will also be a far more enjoyable place to live in.

This week’s Thriving challenge:

Identify a situation or person where you have allowed a bias to impact how you utilize or involve them. Choose one or more of the suggested steps above to see if you can expand your thinking beyond the limitations that the bias has consigned you to. Ask yourself: “How can I approach them, involve them or treat them differently that will give them a chance to express their own deeper value?”

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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