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Is It Bias? Making Diversity Work

An Interview with Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
By Mike Streeter

Afew years ago, Dr. Sondra Thiederman published the book, “Making Diversity Work – Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace”. At the time it received well-deserved praise for its groundbreaking approach to dealing with biases, long recognized as among the biggest barriers to creating inclusive cultures. The book has been revised and updated since its original publication, and just this year Dr. Thiederman released a companion DVD-based course titled, “Is It Bias? Making Diversity Work”.
I had the opportunity to preview the DVD in preparation for interviewing Dr. Thiederman for the Workforce Diversity Network News, and I was really impressed with the quality of the program. I’ve been involved with diversity and inclusion work for over twenty years and “Is It Bias?” is among the best workshops I’ve seen that deal with bias reduction and it’s unique in that its focus is on the more subtle forms of bias held by “otherwise nice people”.
There were a number of specific topics I thought would be of interest to our readers that guided the interview:
WDN - What advice would you give to the leaders an organization that is considering using your program as part of its diversity and inclusion initiative?
Dr. Thiederman - It’s very important that organizations assess and make known to the entire team the subtle damages that bias can cause in the workplace. In other words, assess the need for it and get that “What’s in it for me?” piece in place, because I think there still is today, particularly when it comes to subtle biases, a tendency not to recognize the impact that they have on our inclusion efforts in the workplace.
WDN - What preparation is advisable to prepare members of the organization for the “Is It Bias?” program?
Dr. Thiederman - Before this program is offered, the organization needs to make it clear to participants that we’re talking about subtle or unconscious biases that are held by otherwise nice people. In other words, participants need to be reassured that having a bias does not necessarily make them bad people. Participants will resist the message if they go into this program with the apprehension that they are going to feel bad or be accused of something. That’s not what we’re after here. What we’re after is an awareness of subtle bias followed by knowledge of the skills necessary to get that bias out of the way of our thinking. This program is about solutions, not about accusations and blame.

WDN - I have noticed that this program is very skill based. Can you talk more about that?
Dr. Thiederman - Yes. A goal here was to provide people with very specific skills that they could use immediately to understand what bias is and to make the choice to behave in a way that is counter to their biases. The program shows how to do that. For too long, we have believed that it is impossible to defeat bias, but that simply isn’t true. Not only do we have the ability to become aware of our biases, we also have the power to control how they impact our behavior.  This change of behavior involves treating people with greater respect which, of course, is what an inclusive workplace is all about.  

The benefit of changing our behavior goes, however, even deeper than how we treat one person; it actually can function to erode our bias.  There is a section in the DVD in which I talk about various bias issues including the concept of “acting as if” which addresses the notion of “attitude following behavior.” If we act as if we do not have a bias, our bias begins to fade because not only do we get positive reinforcement, we also begin to interact with people as individuals and see them as individuals. When we see people as individuals, we, by definition see them without bias.

WDN - In what types of organizations has the approach of “Is it Bias?” been used?
Dr. Thiederman The DVD program has just been released so we do not as yet have direct experience with its use in a variety of organizations. Having said that, I have introduced the concepts into many organizations through my speaking and training in a variety of industries including manufacturing, banking, finance and health care in both the U.S. and Canada.
WDN - Do you have experience with using your program in other countries or cultures?
Dr. Thiederman - At this point, the U.S. and Canada, but because the principles are so fundamental to the human condition, I believe they would work in other countries as well. The video itself depicts situations that, in most cases, would have global application.
WDN - Do you have any observations regarding the most effective way to implement “Is It Bias?” within an organization?

Dr. Thiederman - It can stand alone as a separate program or be integrated into the organization’s diversity and inclusion initiative. Everything is there – the definitions and the steps are spelled out in detail. Ultimately, though, in the best of all possible worlds, the training should be followed up by efforts to keep the concepts “top of mind.” Basically, this program is about forming a habit of noticing our biases and changing our behaviors. As with any habit change, we need to be reminded.  So, for example, having ten-minute discussions or bias-reduction activities at regular meetings will keep the principle of bias awareness and behavior change in the forefront of everyone’s thinking. Those simple efforts will go a long way to ensure the application of these steps and their integration into the organization’s culture.

WDN - Is the program best delivered to senior levels first before deploying it throughout an organization?
Dr. Thiederman - Ideally yes, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary because the principles and techniques apply at every level
WDN - Do you feel that “Is It Bias?” is a program that can be presented in an organization without the benefit of special expertise in the subject?
Dr. Thiederman - The support materials provided with the DVD -- the leader’s guide and the book -- provide a great deal of facilitation guidance and factual background.  There  is also guidance on supplemental activities and strategies for handling different situations in the training room. Having said that, the presenter should be someone who has familiarity with diversity issues and some comfort with them; someone who is intrinsically a good facilitator and most importantly; someone who has personal insight into their own biases and hot buttons.

WDN - In all of the work that you have done so far with the program, what has been the most significant barrier to gaining understanding and acceptance from participants?
Dr. Thiederman - I still meet people who will say to me, “Sondra, we can’t really fix our biases. All we can do is work around them.” My response to that is, “Can we fix every single bias? Maybe not, but we do have the power to identify and reduce the vast majority of biases that we see in the workplace.”  

WDN - Biases are among the biggest obstacles to creating an inclusive workplace. Are there any in particular that you have observed in your work that are more persistent and difficult to overcome?
Dr. Thiederman - There are two types of biases that come to mind that are particularly persistent and difficult to overcome. The first is “positive” biases. They are hard to overcome because we think they’re okay. When I say a positive bias, I’m referring to an inflexible belief about a positive characteristic of a group. Some examples are – all Asians are hard workers; all African Americans are musical; and all gay men are artistic. These are biases because they are inflexibly applied to entire groups.  Even though the characteristic in question is a positive one – we’d all love to be hard workers, musical or artistic -- they can do as much damage to the workplace as more negative biases because they limit our ability to see a person accurately.  

The second type of bias that is persistent and difficult is what I refer to as Guerilla Bias™. This type of bias is like the guerilla warrior who hides in the jungle behind beautiful foliage but presents a serious threat. Guerilla Biases hide behind what appear to be kindly acts, but, in fact, carry the biased message that goes something like; “All members of your group are in some way fragile or needy and require extra gentle treatment.”  

An example of a group that is often the target of Guerilla Bias™ is single mothers. The manager of a single mother might be inclined, with the best of intentions, to provide less honest feedback than he does to other employees because, after all, the manager’s thinking goes, “She’s had a rough road and has enough on her plate.” This preferential treatment looks like kindness and it would be if it applied to an individual mother who the manager knew to be overloaded at that particular moment. If applied, however, to every member of the group (i.e., “All single mothers need special treatment”) it becomes a bias and one that prevents individual mothers from learning what they are doing wrong and, therefore, having the opportunity to improve and move up in the organization.  The price we pay for Guerilla Bias™ is obviously a steep one. I call this brand of bias the “new discrimination” and it is dangerously pervasive in our workplaces.

WDN - The focus of “Is It Bias?” is to develop individual skills to identify, reduce and control the impact of biases in oneself. Sometimes we could use a gentle nudge from co-workers or friends to point out when we are letting our biases get the best of us. Other times we may need to be the one doing the nudging. Do you have any thoughts on our responsibility to engage others in this regard and how to do it?
Dr. Thiederman - My suggestion is to form what I refer to as “Bias Spotter” partnerships. Research has shown that accountability to another person is a key component of bias reduction. The “Bias Spotter” strategy is similar to a good two-way mentor partnership in the sense that it is based on trust and mutual respect. The idea is for each person to be responsible for observing the decisions, words and behaviors of her partner and give feedback if she feels that behavior is inappropriate or a bias is involved. Clearly, this has to be done in the spirit of mutual support. The process is not intended to be accusatory. My book contains a more detailed explanation of this concept.

WDN - At one time or another, it is likely that we have all been both the perpetrators and targets of subtle or unconscious bias and more often than not, we aren’t really aware of it. Left unmanaged, the results of bias can be disastrous in terms of underutilized people and untapped potential in the workplace. With the best of intentions, we include or exclude people based on the categories or groups to which they belong, not on their potential or abilities as individuals.
Dr. Thiederman’s program helps us to recognize the biases in others and ourselves and provides straightforward processes and strategies to address them. No matter what stage of your organization’s diversity and inclusion initiative, you will find this program to be a valued addition. I highly recommend it.

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  If we act as if we do not have a bias, our bias begins to fade because not only do we get positive reinforcement, we also begin to interact with people as individuals and see them as individuals. When we see people as individuals, we, by definition see them without bias. -- Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

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