Resolving Unconscious Bias
By: Sharon Drew Morgen
Our biases have been developed through the stories of our lives. From birth, our parent’s beliefs become part of our unconscious, very personal, ecosystem; the cultural norms of our youth create our habits, behaviors, and identity; the schools we attend or the gangs we join introduce us to the way our world works and how to behave accordingly; our professions are chosen to allow us to spend our days within the confines of environments that comfortably maintain our norms. Net net, our lives are inspired by our unconscious biases, causing us to live and work, marry and spend time with, people whose norms, interpretations, and beliefs are very similar to ours.
Our normal skill sets aid and abet us: we listen through biased filters and hear and respond to, basically, what our biases tell us was said (I wrote a book on this: What? Did you really say what I think I heard? ); we play and read and watch according to what we already believe and rarely venture far afield; we notice what we notice in response to our nucleus of personal norms, values, and learned habits.
Indeed, we trust our unconscious biases and interpretations, and the resulting responses, so thoroughly that we are often unaware that our actions – built in, normalized and habituated, accepted by our family, peers, and profession – may harm others.
WE CANNOT UNDERSTAND OTHERS
We believe, with certainty, that what we see, hear, and feel is ‘real’ because it IS our reality; we restrict our lives accordingly, making it difficult, if not impossible, to fully understand another’s reality. What we might hear as powerful might be heard as insulting by another person; an incident might be noticed by one person, ignored by another, and an excuse for violence by another. We cannot help but judge others according to our reality.
I, for one, never lock doors. My car is always unlocked. My house is always open even when I travel. Many people would find this unthinkable. I find it safe. As an incest survivor and a rape victim, I always need a quick way in and out. If a door is locked around me, I hyperventilate. Terrifying. These past events, of which locks on doors are only a subset of the after-effects of my early life, have affected my communication, my lifestyle, my choice of friends and mates, my political views, my unconscious triggers, and my choice of professions even after decades of therapy. There is no way you can understand my interpretation of anything, or the resulting behaviors I exhibit, unless you’ve lived in my shoes. And yet my differences might cause you to judge my actions against your own and find them wanting.
And herein lie the problem. When we run into others with different lifestyle choices, or communication styles, or education, or assumptions, or race, or political beliefs, we may not have the skills to connect with them in ways they understand; we may wrongly misinterpret their intent. Certainly we may not notice we’ve been triggered and behave automatically in ways that inadvertently harm another.
I believe that most people don’t intend to harm anyone. But without common ground, the best we can do is act from our habituated interpretations and assume because we ‘mean well’ that we’re not causing harm.
NEED FOR CHANGE
Historically, we’ve done a bad job caring about resolving the problems of inherent bias that may ultimately harm others. I think this might be changing. Companies and public servants are now taking unconscious bias seriously and requiring unconscious bias training in the hopes of giving people new choices and eradicating harm. Good. But I have a concern.
As someone who has spent decades coding and scaling the stages of how human systems change, I know it’s not possible to cause change from the outside; each individual must find a way to evaluate and reconsider their own core norms and biases to make any necessary corrections that only they can make, from within (i.e. inside/out). I don’t believe we’re doing that. Current training approaches are based on helping folks recognize and change behaviors by offering information, practice, scientific data, videos, etc. from the outside (outside/in), hoping to create new triggers, new behaviors, and new awareness. This approach cannot fix the problem permanently because it:
- doesn’t get to the root of someone’s unconscious, and very subjective, biases;
- demonstrates subjectively chosen hypothetical situations believed (from the outside) to trigger bias and may miss specific issues and habituated norms of an individual;
- has no way of knowing if the offered visuals or stories or trial experiences address the full range of potential biases within each individual learner;
- doesn’t teach how to transcend someone’s habituated ‘unconscious triggers’ that go off in real situations;
- fails to install permanent, instinctive, alternative, appropriate behaviors.
Current unconscious bias training assumes people can learn enough from videos, discussions, ‘practicing ‘real’ situations, etc. what unconscious bias looks like to create awareness to recognize a problematic situation before or while it’s happening (have you ever tried to do that?) and know exactly what behaviors need changing – and what to change them to!
In other words, just when our brains are unconsciously registering ALERT, we want it to tell itself ‘Nope. Wrong thinking. Don’t do that. Don’t think that. Stop responding that way. Do something different. NOW!’ just as it’s occurring. It’s possible to do so, but not with the training offered.
WHAT IS BIAS? AND WHY IS IT SO HARD TO CHANGE?
Bias is the unconscious, habitual, involuntary, and historic reaction to something deemed ‘different’ (skin color, gender, lifestyle choices, etc.) that negatively triggers someone’s largely unconscious beliefs and values – going against what the person deems ‘right’ or ‘good’ as per the subjective filters through which they experience their lives - causing an automatic feeling of, and defense against, some sort of violation.
Our reactions to external stimuli are unconscious and automatic, and follow our brain’s historic and habituated neural pathways whenever our unconscious triggers go off. To alter these, it’s necessary to go to the source; it’s not possible to permanently change behaviors by merely changing behaviors. Offering training that merely offers examples and experiences of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviors, and expecting people to undo their habituated triggers because they ‘admit’ to, or recognize ‘bad’ behaviors, uses the wrong thinking. Changing core biases permanently is not a behavior change issue; it’s a core Identity/Belief problem that must be resolved at the source, within the system that created it. I’ll lay the problem out for you piece by piece, then introduce a solution for permanent change. Basically, this level of change is a systems problem.
WHAT IS A SYSTEM, AND WHY IS IT NECESSARY TO ADDRESS IN BIAS TRAINING
A system is a conglomeration of (historic, unique) elements (consisting of our norms, culture, history, values, beliefs, dreams, etc.) that we hold largely unconsciously. They are formed during our lifetimes starting from birth, and as in all systems, are made up of elements (beliefs, values, cultural norms, ethics, morality, etc.) that operate from the same set of rules. Indeed, we live our lives in cities alongside others of similar political beliefs, marry people of similar education, and even listen with biased filters that keep out uncomfortable ideas.
Systems are congruent (Systems Congruence, Homeostasis) entities that always seek stability; they define our politics, our mate selection, even where we live and how we listen to others. Because systems seek to maintain congruence, they have a finely tuned unconscious organizational structure of filters that seek out, and avoid, situations that make them uncomfortable or they find incongruent. Attempting to shift them causes resistance as this level change causes the system to be incongruent, regardless of the seeming need to do something different or the efficacy of a new/better solution. In other words, our status quo shows up every day to maintain itself and we will do whatever it takes to maintain it. It’s who we are.
For permanent change to occur, for new behaviors to be exhibited and chosen, there must be a change in core beliefs before new skills or situations are offered because anything ‘new’ would have no place to fit in our largely automated ‘system’. Current bias training uses methods don’t facilitate this change:
- Listening: our habituated listening filters and neural pathways automatically bias whatever anyone says to us; we set up our lives to avoid discomfort, and uniquely interpret differences in what has been said so our brains can keep us comfortable. When information is offered as evidence, our historic, habituated, biased listening filters kick in and uniquely interpret incoming data, often differently than the intended meaning. Indeed, it’s not even possible to hear anyone without bias; when what we hear (or see, or feel) makes us uncomfortable, we react historically regardless of how far the intended meaning is from our interpretation.
- Questions: all normal questions are biased by the Asker’s subjective curiosity, thereby restricting the Responder’s replies to the Responder’s reaction and interpretation of what was heard, and potentially overlooking real answers.
- Historic: biases are programmed in from the time we’re born. Every day we wake up with the same biases, kept in place by our choice of friends, TV, neighborhoods, professions, reading materials, etc. To permanently shift our biases, we’d have to change our historic programming.
- Physiological: who we ‘are’ is systemic; our beliefs and norms, character and values have been programmed in and become our Identity, creating the behaviors and responses that will unconsciously maintain our status quo in everything we do and every action we take.
- Triggers: because of our lifetime of inculcated beliefs, values, norms and outlook, our brains react chemically, unconsciously, and automatically when there is an untoward activity.
- Information: our training programs typically tell, show, explain, offer stories, videos, etc. etc. using our biased choices, in our favored formats, in our languaging, in hopes that our information triggers recognition, or new behavior adoption to people who may not process what we're telling them in the way we would prefer. They may not interpret, or know how to recognize a need for, or understand, how to make sense of whatever we’re telling them.
- Behaviors: as the expression and execution of our beliefs and status quo, behaviors translate our core systemic beliefs and norms into daily action. Behaviors represent us; they are not ‘us’.
And herein lie the problem. Because of the complexity and sophisticated combination of the elements above, merely doing something different because we are told to, or even want to, won’t change our behaviors or our systems permanently. It’s the equivalent of trying to get a forward moving robot to move backwards because we tell it it needs new options, or think it would be better if it did, or show it pictures of other robots who do move backward. To change behaviors permanently it’s necessary to change the system, the programming, which created them to begin with. And this cannot be accomplished by trying to change the output of the problem itself. Remember Einstein? Trying to change behaviors with the system that created them won’t permanently change behaviors.
CHANGE IS A SYSTEMS PROBLEM
Change is the alteration of something that has existed in a certain way, using specific and accepted norms, in a specific configuration, for a period of time. To amend our responses to bias, we must first recognize, then modify, the specific triggers (historically produced for a reason) that have been developed to operate unconsciously as the norm.
It’s basically a systems problem: for permanent change to occur, we must reconfigure the system that has created and maintains the status quo, and has operated ‘as is’ for some amount of time. Anything new coming in to our system (any problem to fix, any new information that creates disruption, any new activity the system is asked to take) demands changing the status quo. Indeed, any new decision is a change management problem. The way we are addressing the problem of changing people’s unconscious biases is not enabling permanent change.
Change means that a system (by definition stable) must go through a process to become something different:
- a trigger alerts the status quo that something may be awry;
- a careful examination by all elements within the status quo must occur to find any incongruence;
- agreement within the system (rules, stakeholders, identity, etc.) that change is necessary and that a fix won’t cause permanent disruption;
- an initial attempt to fix anything missing on its own (using the same elements that created the problem to begin with);
- the realization that the problem cannot be fixed from within the system;
- an examination by everything that created the problem of any new possibilities that will create Systems Congruence;
- an understanding and acceptance of the downside and disruption of a change (i.e. if politics change, how do we speak with family? If same-sex relationships, what happens with our church group?);
- a fix is found that is agreeable, with full knowledge of how to circumvent any disruption it will cause;
- new habits, new triggers, new neural pathways, etc. are developed in a way that incorporate the ‘new’ with the old to minimize disruption.
Does any element of the original need to be kept in place? How will the system know? How would any change effect the whole? How will the bits that need change shift while still maintaining its core values? The system will fight to maintain itself. If all of the above aren’t managed, the system will fill in the blanks with something comfortable and habituated (regardless of its efficacy). In other words, if there is not systemic agreement, no known way to resolve the problem using its current givens, no known way to incorporate something new to the existing system so the system doesn’t implode, no change will happen regardless of the need or the efficacy of the solution.
Indeed, you can’t change a behavior by trying to change a behavior. And all of the current bias training involves a focus on getting behaviors changed without addressing the source that created the behaviors and triggers to begin with.
WHAT IS A BEHAVIOR?
Current Bias Training attempts to get behaviors changed by using ‘rational’ means: showing learners biased situations, offering data and research, and playing videos to learn what bias looks like. In other words, offering Information: showing and telling people what’s wrong with what they’re doing and what ‘right’ would look like – all of which can be misinterpreted, misread, or objected to, regardless of our intent. While it certainly can make people more aware, these attempts will not cause permanent change: they develop no new habituated triggers or neural pathways to set off a new response to a stimulus. Let’s delve into this a bit.
Behaviors are what we do - transactions automatically initiated by our core system of beliefs, norms, and experience, to act out and express, who we are. We all develop behaviors that ‘be’ who we are, to represent us. Behaviors are the output, the forward movement of the robot, the actions others see.
If asked in a vacuum if we want to harm anyone, few of us would want to. And yet in small and large ways, our unconscious behaviors too often end up unjustly ignoring, being mean to, or harming someone because of their gender, or race or or... I once heard Malcolm Gladwell, who is bi-racial, say that when tested for unconscious racial bias, he came up biased. We all carry some biases. The question becomes 1. Do we notice when, or before, problems occur, and if not what would we need to know or believe differently to notice, and 2. Once we notice (or not) can we have choice over our actions and avoid biased behaviors or make adjustments at the time, or just before, they occur.
To permanently change a behavior, a system must:
- shift the core beliefs that inform any habituated, unconscious bias and develop additional beliefs, assumptions and triggers;
- create new neural pathways to the brain that lead to choosing more respectful outputs, habits, behaviors;
- listen with a different listening filter than the habituated ones;
- enable the person to change themselves, using their own unconscious system of norms to design new behaviors that won’t offend the system;
- interpret another’s actions in a neutral way that doesn’t offend our own beliefs – or change our beliefs.
To change our unconscious, automatic responses that cause us to respond defensively, the system that has created and maintains the status quo must be reconfigured to produce alternate outputs while still maintaining Systems Congruence. And unfortunately, information-based training (showing, feeling, telling, explaining) is ineffective.
Offering any sort of information before the system knows why, how, when, or if to do anything different – a belief change - will only inspire resistance as the system won’t know how to apply it as it’s ‘just fine, thanks.’ It’s a belief change issue. We’re asking the system to repopulate its status quo that created the problem to begin with, design new behavioral responses, and develop a new set of triggers to tell the system it’s time to behave differently. Initially the system doesn’t know what it doesn’t know and has no inherent desire to do anything different.
In pursuit of excellence, people need some sort of stimulus to begin a process. It’s only during this process the holes in their knowledge become clear: what’s the distance between its current norms and something new and why isn’t the status quo good enough; between what’s been working and what’s now accepted as not working; the old behaviors and responses and designing new ones.
It’s only in the distance between here and there, one set of givens vs another, a known against an unknown, is there’s a desire to change something. And here is where it needs information. If it’s believed that all is well, regardless of any evidence otherwise, the system will not seek out, or pay attention to, any information, regardless of its efficacy.
As per my robot example, if you think the robot should have the option of moving backwards, telling it when and how to know when or if to move backward, giving it scientific data as to why it should move backward, or pushing it backward, will not cause the robot to change. The programming must be changed. And so it is with all of us: when we change our habituated beliefs and norms (our programming), our behavior will automatically change.
CHANGING BEHAVIORS DOESN’T CHANGE BEHAVIORS
Real change demands a systemic shift to create new triggers, new assumptions, new neural pathways, and ultimately, as an outcome, new behaviors. No one, no information, no person, from outside is able to go into someone’s unconscious to (re)create all these things. And permanent change will not happen until it does. The goal is not to train someone to rid themselves of unconscious bias; it’s to teach the system itself how to discover where it is designating the bias and facilitate it through to new behaviors a way that maintains the foundational norms of the system. It’s using the old to trigger the new. Both/And, not Either/Or. I know this is a lot to understand. Call me and I’ll discuss. 512 771 1117.
Basically, to alter the foundation that will develop new behaviors, the brain must change itself. Over the past decades, I’ve coded the 13 steps that constitute the route to systemic, human change so people can make their OWN internal changes that will lead to new choices, i.e. new behaviors. I’ve taught this model in sales as Buying Facilitation® to global corporations (KPMG, Morgan Stanley, IBM, P&G, Kaiser, etc.) for over 30 years, and written several books on it. The book that details each of the stages is Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell.
We must become Facilitators, not Influencers. We must teach folks to create and habituate new neural pathways and filters.
- Listening: We must avoid habituated neural pathways when listening to others. In your mind’s eye put yourself on the ceiling and listen from above. From above, you can observe what’s going on without bias or reaction. I have a whole chapter on this in What?. Not difficult – you just need to want to do it and develop triggers that will alert you to the need to do something different.
- Questions: I developed a new form of question that doesn’t interrogate and is not biased by the needs of the questioner, but instead acts like a GPS to guide people through their own unconscious. These Facilitative Questions are systemic, use specific words, in specific order, that traverse through the steps of change sequentially so others can note their own incongruencies. So: What would you need to know or believe differently to be willing to take an extra step and consciously choose to listen from a ‘different ear’?
- Beliefs: by shifting the focus from changing behaviors to first changing beliefs and systems, we end up with permanent core change, new triggers and habits.
- Information: we make several types of information available for the learner to choose from, to fit their own learning criteria and styles, and needs to fit into their unique areas of deficiency.
I’ve developed a new way to train that facilitates self-learning and permanent change from within the system. For those wishing a full discussion, I’ve written an article on this that appeared in The 2003 Annual, Volume 1 Training (I’m happy to send you a more specific discussion of this if you’re not already bored) Just note: my process leads people, without any bias, to those places in their brains, into their system of beliefs and cultural norms, which made the decisions to employ their biased behaviors to begin with, and teaches them how to reconfigure their system to adopt something new (so long as its aligned with their beliefs). We are making the unconscious conscious and developing more appropriate triggers and behaviors.
How will you know that by adding systemic change elements to your training that you can enable more people to make more appropriate behavioral choices around their bias?
If you would like my help in designing a program that resolves unconscious biases permanently, I’d love to help. I believe it’s an important task. I believe it’s time we had the tools to enable learners to permanently change and become non-judgmental, accepting, and kind. And above all, cause no harm. All of our lives depend on it.
Sharon Drew Morgen is the visionary behind Buying Facilitation® - a change management model that includes learning how to Listen for Systems, formulating Facilitative Questions, and understanding the steps of systemic change. For those of you wishing to learn more, take a look at the program syllabus. Please visit www.dirtylittlesecrets.com and read the two free chapters. Consider reading it with the companion ebook Buying Facilitation®
Sharon Drew is the author of the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling With Integrity, as well as 6 other books on helping buyers buy. She is also the author of the Amazon bestseller What? Did you really say what I think I heard? Sharon Drew keynotes, trains and coaches sales teams to help them unlock situations that are stalled, and teaches teams how to present and prospect by facilitating the complete buying decision process. She delivers keynotes at annual sales conferences globally. Sharon Drew can be reached at email@example.com (512) 771-1117
Contributor: Sharon Drew Morgen