NEW YORK TIMES
Some months ago I was in the Memphis airport preparing to fly to New York. While I was sitting at the gate, the gate agent announced that our flight had been delayed 45 minutes. Almost immediately, a voice bellowed from behind me in a deep Southern accent.
“You talkin’ to us, lady?”
I turned and saw a man I would best describe as Santa Claus with an attitude: mid-60s, white beard and hair, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt, car magazine in hand. I have to admit that I thought I had him pegged — as if his whole life experience could be summed up and understood in that moment.
When it was time to board the plane, I walked to my aisle seat. And who should be sitting in the window seat but “angry Santa” himself. Once we had taken off, I did some work on my computer, and my neighbor read his car magazine. We kept to ourselves for the majority of the flight.
As we approached New York, the pilot announced our final descent. Experienced fliers know this is the time when “airplane chat” often takes place because it is safe to start a conversation without fear of getting stuck talking to somebody for two hours. Turning, I asked him, “What takes you to New York?”
“I’m going to a professional meeting,” he responded.
When I asked him what he did for a living, he answered that he was a radiologist.
Despite being a diversity consultant with 30 years of experience, I’m embarrassed to admit that the guy I had perceived as a person of lesser education was, in fact, a doctor.
And my surprise didn’t stop there. When I asked if he had a particular area of interest within radiology, he said he was using active brain scans to examine how humans responded to stimuli, especially when they interacted with different types of people.
It turned out that he was working in an area that was especially interesting to me. If it hadn’t been for my immediate stereotyping of him, I might have learned many new things about the brain during that nearly three-hour flight.
You’d think that as the founder of Cook Ross, an international diversity consulting company, I would have known better, yet the unconscious mind plays tricks on all of us in that way. Every day, our biases determine what we see and how we judge those around us.
Bias is nothing new. It can show up in the way we perceive someone’s race, gender, age, disability, dress, accent, speech patterns, mannerisms and so on. For the most part, we tend to view it as a result of people’s intention to hurt others. However, neurocognitive research confirms that bias may very well be as normal to humans as breathing. Studies have confirmed that people have biases about almost every dimension of human identity. Virtually everyone has them, and overwhelmingly they are unconscious.
Yes, there is plenty of conscious bias. But focusing so much of our energy on combating conscious discrimination can create greater defensiveness on the part of people who are accused of bias when they don’t even know they are being affected by it. And when unconscious bias influences things like hiring decisions, it may not only be unfair but also put companies at a competitive disadvantage.
Think about it. How many times have you met people for the first time, perhaps in an interview or at a meeting, and made certain assumptions about them — the way I did with Dr. Santa — and then found out the assumptions were wrong?
The good news is that while it may not be possible to eliminate bias, there appear to be ways to identify and navigate it. First, recognize and accept that you have biases. Rather than feel guilty about them, take responsibility for them. Once you accept them, you can begin to limit their impact.
To do so, you must develop the capacity to observe yourself in action and to notice when certain people or circumstances serve as triggers. When you meet a job candidate, you may want to stop and ask yourself, “What am I already making up about this person before we have even had a chance to speak?”
It is helpful to begin to practice what I call constructive uncertainty. Learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias. This can be particularly important when we are in circumstances that make us feel awkward or uncomfortable.
Try to interact regularly with and learn about people and groups toward whom you may show bias, and expose yourself to positive role models within those groups.
Finally, look at how you make decisions. Do you interview some people in the office and some over lunch? Some in the morning, when you’re fresh, and others at the end of the day, when you’re tired? Those factors could very well affect the way you perceive interviewees.
Recognizing that bias is always present and giving some thought to both your internal reactions and your external behavior will not only prevent discriminatory practices but also lead to better personal and business decisions.
After all, the “Santa” who walks into your office could be the best employee you’ve ever had.
HOWARD J. ROSS is the author of “Everyday Bias” and “Reinventing Diversity.”