Leaders Take Courageous Action to Address Bias (Unconscious Bias Series Part 3)

There are three steps to understanding and addressing Unconscious Bias:

  1. Identify Bias
  2. Cultivate Connection
  3. Choose Courage

Two weeks ago, we started an exercise on the first step, identifying bias. Last week, we focused on cultivating additional connection. Today we will dive into the final step.

Step Three: Choose Courage

Stick with me, because the language may be a touch out of your comfort zone. However, the purpose is to confront bias and create a space where everyone is valued and contributes their best.

An example: Many manufacturers have a scientific environment where people work in labs to research new products, ensure quality, and/or prepare products for regulatory bodies.

Inevitably, there are people with different education levels who work in the lab. Some are young, Gen Z even, with an advanced degree. They might work alongside Boomers and Gen X-ers who may not have as much education but have more “real world” experience developed over decades. Imagine the potential biases in this example.

For example, an older worker might think, “All that ivory tower learning doesn’t prepare these young bucks for the old equipment we use or the internal politics. They are too naive to handle this.” Conversely, the younger, highly-educated workers could be thinking, “These people aren’t willing to change or learn new ways of doing things.”

How to Choose Courage

Successful labs have leaders who are aware of biases. They Identity Bias (Step 1). Then, they build the team–Cultivate Connection (Step 2)–in a variety of ways, including weekly one-on-ones, deliberate team building, coaching, careful project assignments, and guidance. Finally, the third step is to Choose Courage.

There are a number of practical ways to apply this third lofty-sounding step. A leader can open or close a meeting with a question prompt or a challenge to the organization.

Consider these four examples:

1. Develop courage to identify bias by checking assumptions.

Spend a few minutes encouraging people to answer this question: “Think of a time when someone–maybe you–made an assumption that turned out to be wrong. What was the impact on the people involved?” Follow up on responses with questions like, “What were the facts?” or “What things do we make up in our head to fill in the gaps of our understanding?” Five to fifteen minutes of discussion can get people thinking differently.

2. Develop the courage to cope with bias by coaching and practicing the art of proactively choosing responses.

Ask your team, “Think of a time when you said something or did something you regretted afterward. If you could relive that time, what would you say or do differently?” Follow up with coaching responses:

  • Identify a bias you experience often.
  • Plan what you can do or say when you face this bias in the future.
  • Use the response and keep improving it. (See an example of this process below.)

3. Develop the courage to ally with others.

Ask, “Think of a time when a colleague was struggling with something. Did you offer support? If not, what held you back? If so, how did that feel?”

Coach others and push yourself to complete these steps:

  • Notice who needs support to address bias.
  • Use empathy and curiosity to understand the issue.
  • Act as a thinking partner for that colleague.

4. Develop the courage to advocate by speaking up.

Directly addressing a biased comment or action can help you and others realize their behavior may cause unintended harm. Ask people, “Think of a time when you spoke up about something important that others were not aware of. What made it easy or hard? What was the response?”

Most people don’t intend to be biased, so assume positive intent.

Returning to my example of the biases in labs with different levels of education and experience, effective leaders can use the “develop courage to cope” skill above. When asking about words that sting, you might hear:

“One time, Madge told me, ‘There is no way someone who’s only been here nine months can understand the quirks of this old product dryer.’ I think the older people here seem to have bias against young people who spent eight years getting an education but have never had to rush a product to a customer.

“They have a point, so I think I can lean in and respond like this: ‘You have a point. I used the latest models of equipment in most of my schooling. Would you please assume that I want to learn, though, and teach me more about what you think I don’t know?’ Maybe if I respond in this manner, by assuming they have some curiosity and empathy with me–we can get along better and understand each other more.”

Next steps

As you read this, how do you feel? Does this all seem like common sense because your people would agree that you are already Identifying Bias, Cultivating Connection, and Choosing Courage every day?

Or does this all seem like an idealistic pipe dream? Either you’re skeptical that people can change their ways or you’re skeptical that any of this is actually needed?

If you’re in the first category, please share your techniques with me and others. You have a lot to teach, and we have a lot to learn.

If you’re in the second category, let’s talk more. Maybe you don’t want to talk to me. If that’s the case, talk to some of those people around you about what we’ve explored in the past three weeks. But I’d love to hear from you.

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