This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

only the blind spot mirror in focus

Note to readers: Given my commitment to be thoughtful and relevant with the current series of posts, my weekly Tuesday cadence has been disrupted. I appreciate your patience and understanding.

Two tips ago was the first in this series that I’m writing specifically for corporate White people like me—a focus that reflects both my personal passion and my professional mission, as I’m seeing compelling connections between racial justice and the vast majority of nearly everything I’ve written on trusted advisorship. For one thing, if we want to have extraordinary work relationships, they must be conscious relationships. And for White professionals, I believe that means working on our own racial literacy.

Toward that end, I want to explore the topic of blind spots more. Blind spots—things about ourselves that we don’t see but others do—are among the few critically important things we’ve always targeted in our deep dive workshops on trusted advisorship and trust-based selling. In my October 2019 tip, I suggested that blind spots are problematic for at least two reasons: (1) we all have them and (2) we tend to act automatically from them … and usually not in trust-building ways).

A closer look at the phenomenon leads us to an important conversation about implicit bias, also called hidden bias or unconscious bias. Implicit bias certainly isn’t a topic only for White people as it isn’t specific or limited to race. But it does have big implications for relationships across race—especially if you, like me, didn’t grow up learning about your own implicit biases and instead grew up assuming that you’re a good person and therefore don’t hold any.

This exploration is relatively new to me, so let me be clear that I am far from being an implicit bias expert. But I am learning and re-discovering some important things these days that I wanted to share.

Some Basics on Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is a particular kind of bias that’s very different from conscious discrimination. It’s formally defined by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.” Implicit bias means I might be consciously committed to fairness and equality (check), but I can still hold hidden negative prejudices (check) that change how I show up in my everyday interactions (check).

Here’s an executive summary of some basics, thanks to some really great bite-sized learning modules from Georgetown University on “Bias and Well-Meaning People” (thank you, AD, for the source):

  • Implicit bias is a human phenomenon. It’s hard-wired into our brains. It helps us simplify complex information by using categories and stereotypes to reduce our “cognitive load.”
  • Our brain takes milliseconds to assess someone as “like us” or “not like us,” which in turn activates different parts of our brains as a result.
  • We’re inclined to treat those “like us” people better, and with greater interest and empathy. (I’m italicizing that last part because of its implications for trust and influence.)
  • We tend to relate to those who are “not like us”—whether the difference is race, education, age, or something else—as the group they belong to, rather than as individuals. Which means we unwittingly impose our feelings, beliefs, and attitudes about those groups—shaped early in our lives through regular exposure to the way they are portrayed in society through TV, movies, media, and more—on a particular individual.
  • We do all this without even realizing we’re doing it.

Implicit Bias at Work

I vividly remember learning about one compelling research example when I was in graduate school 20 years ago that unfortunately still has significant implications for our workplaces today. The findings were discovered through an implicit association test, which is designed to uncover hidden stereotypes. In short, job candidates with White-sounding names at the top of their resumes, like “Emily” and “Greg” got 50% more interview call-backs than “Lakisha” and “Jamal,” even though their resumes were otherwise exactly the same.

That’s worth a dramatic pause and a repeat. Their resumes were otherwise exactly the same.

More recent studies suggest this dynamic is still very much in play in the business world. So much so that “whitening” a resume is a thing.

This is just one example of implicit bias at work.

Awareness is the First Critical Step

Verna Myers is a Harvard-trained lawyer, a veteran consultant on diversity and inclusion, and currently the VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix. In 2014, she delivered a TED Talk that is equal parts compelling, inspiring, and humorous, called, “How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them.” She calls herself out with an insightful story about her own implicit bias against women, based on her unexpected reaction to a female airplane pilot.

Verna suggests that Step 1 for us all is to get out of denial. “Stop trying to be good people. We need real people,” she says with passion and compassion. She role models self-awareness when she links back to the airplane insight and observes, “Men are my default.” Then she asks us to consider and openly talk about, “Who is your default? Who do you trust? Who are you afraid of? Who do you implicitly feel connected to? Who do you run away from?”

Jennifer Eberhardt is a social psychologist at Stanford University who shares a similar message about awareness. Among other things, she is known for her work to help change the culture of the police department in Oakland, California. In her book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, she says, “There is hope in the sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.”

BTW, if you haven’t yet clicked on any of the links in this section, pause and picture these two women in your mind’s eye. What skin color do you see? Do you assume they are White? Black? Latinx? Whatever your assumption, and whether your assumption is correct or incorrect, that’s implicit bias at work.

After Awareness Comes Practice

Verna Myers, Jennifer Eberhardt, and many others have proven that we can actually train ourselves to react differently where we hold unconscious biases that are harmful to others and to our relationships.

During Verna’s TED Talk, she flashes a series of images of well-known and well-regarded Black people on the screen, saying, “Don’t even think about color-blindness.” She encourages us to really see awesome Black people. “Look at them directly and memorize them because when we look at awesome folks who are Black it helps to dissociate the association that happens automatically in our brain.”

She also suggests we expand our social and professional circles: “Go deeper, closer, further … go against the stereotypes.” She acknowledges that this can feel awkward, and urges, “This is not about perfection, it’s about connection.”

Dr. Mary Rowe,  Adjunct Professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management suggests we regularly practice “micro-affirmations” at work, which she defines as “… gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” She says that, while we may not always be able to catch ourselves acting from our biases, “Affirming others can become a conscious as well as unconscious practice that prevents unconscious slights.”

A Call to Mastery

There’s certainly more to explore here, including specifics on what implicit bias means for trusted advisorship, and how exactly it shows up when we’re working on building trust with others. I welcome your thoughts as I continue to reflect.

In the meantime, remember it’s not wrong or immoral—or White—to have biases; it’s human. The question isn’t do you have blind spots; the questions are (1) what can you do to increase your awareness of them, and (2) how committed are you to the practice required to show up in a more meaningful and masterful way?

None of this is child’s play, by the way. It takes courage, humility, and ego strength. And a good dose of persistence.

And so it is with inclusive trusted advisorship.

Make It Real

If you’re game to explore this further and in a much more personal way, Project Implicit, which is a collaborative research effort between researchers at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and University of Washington, offers dozens of IAT’s that can help you discover your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics.

The Outsmarting Human Minds Project at Harvard University chock full of interesting videos and podcasts to showcase the science of how human minds work and shape the decisions we make, at work and in life.

LinkedIn Learning also has a helpful series of short tutorials that cover the basics of “Communicating about Culturally Sensitive Issues,” including one video lesson on implicit associations and unconscious bias. (Thank you, MH, for sharing this.)

Photo by Jennifer Boyer, via flickr.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).