Unconscious Bias: On Being Racist, Sexist, and Having Cave People’s Brains

I have a confession to make:  I’m racist.

If you have ever met me, that might come as a shock, since I’m a diversity and inclusion consultant and extremely passionate about equity and justice. But yes; I’m racist. But you know what? To some extent you are, too.

If you’ve ever seen the musical “Avenue Q” (winner of the 2004 Tony for Best Broadway Musical, FYI), you might be familiar with the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (warning: lyrics NSFW!). In this song several of the characters sing (joyously!) about how they’re racist. They sing not about overt or explicit racism but more subversive, unconscious bias that we humans all have. It was that moment when I first heard that song that the concept of hidden or unconscious bias hit my, well, consciousness.

What’s "Hidden" or "Unconscious Bias"?

"Unconscious bias" is the preference for or against a person, thing, or group held at an unconscious level. This means we don’t even realize our minds are holding onto this bias of, say, that person on the phone who must be unintelligent because their English isn't as good as yours, or that masculine-looking woman in front of us at the restaurant must be a lesbian. In contrast, an overt – or explicit – bias is an attitude or prejudice that one endorses at a conscious level; it’s obvious and blatant.

Research on hidden bias shows that, regardless of the best intentions, most people hold deep-seated resistance to the “difference” of others, whether that difference is defined by evident factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, age, or physical characteristics, or more subtle ones such as background, personality type, experiences, or even sexual orientation. But bias can also exist in a positive sense: we may favor our family, our community, and people with whom we feel a connection based on shared characteristics or experiences (e.g., same alma mater or physical work location).

These hidden biases aren’t purposely or consciously created; they are products of our brain’s self-generated definition of normal, acceptable, or positive. They're shaped by many factors: from past experiences to our local or cultural environment, to the influence of social community and the media. We don’t consciously create these definitions of “normal” versus “different,” “good” versus “bad,” or “acceptable” versus “unacceptable.” In fact, conscious and unconscious biases are often divergent; our hidden biases may exist in spite of our sincere desire to be bias-free, and in direct contradiction of the attitudes we believe we have.

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Managing Personal Change: How Resilient Are You?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent,
but the one most responsive to change.”

- Charles Darwin (1809-1882), English naturalist and geologist, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory

Individual Resilience is how humans adapt to change. It’s like a tree in a storm: some trees (like a live oak) bounce back from the force of the wind, looking like nothing has happened. Other trees (like a pine tree) aren’t so flexible, and after constant winds branches break or the tree stays bent. People are like that too: some bend in times of change and snap back while others break, get damaged, or never fully recover.

While there’s a lot of conversation in the “change management” circles about the process of change, you don’t hear enough about how to set people up for success when change occurs, or how to help them be resilient, ready for the winds of change. But there’s a lot of great research out there on how us humans react to change from a variety of fields; let’s explore just one of these ideas on resilience.

Change Management researchers Dr. Linda Hoopes and Mark Kelly looked at over thirty years’ worth of change management data and identified the key variables that make individuals successful in times of change. They looked at why Person A thrived and grew in times of change and why Person B crashed and burned in the same time. They found that the people who thrived and grew had high competence in seven specific areas, and they dubbed these the 7 Aspects of Individual Resilience. In theory the higher we are in these seven areas the better we are at surviving -- and thriving -- in times of change.

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The “Year of the Dog” and Sticky Resolutions

The turning of the year is a time when many people think about what they'd like to accomplish in the upcoming shiny new year. While I, too, do believe that January is a perfect time to identify where I'd like to go (in this case) in 2017, but I find it equally beneficial to also think about WHAT goals I set out for myself last year, and how well did I meet them and -- if I didn't -- why?

I saw a cartoon once that had two cows sitting in a pasture. One cow asked the other, "What are resolutions?" The other cow replied, "It's a human's 'To Do' list for the first week in January." This always stuck with me, as so many folks make New Year's resolutions ... and then either break them or forget about them a short time into the New Year.

So, how can we make our resolutions "stick"? There's a lot of great research on how we humans can keep our willpower and dedication to keep our goals. Here's some suggestions:

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