The material in this article is adapted from Sondra’s book: “Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace.”
As effective as [bias reduction] steps usually are, they have been known from time to time to hit a snag. Sometimes the nature of this snag is hard to decipher, other times it is painfully clear: The person holding the bias feels that their inflexible belief is benefiting them in some way and, because of that benefit, just doesn’t want to let it go.
To be honest, sometimes there is a tiny and temporary advantage, or what psychologists call a “secondary gain,” to having a bias. Of course – and this is the tricky part – some tiny benefit can’t possibly out weigh the damage that biases wreak on our lives and leadership abilities.
Your task is to look honestly at the secondary gain you receive from any biases you may hold. Maybe they provide a vague sense of control, maybe your biases make you feel the world is just a little bit more predictable and, therefore, safe, or maybe, as in the case below, that benefit is more specific. In any case, the biased-person’s task is to identify the alleged benefit, analyze it to see if it is real, and weigh it against the terrible price we pay for refusing to change. Once we identify why we won’t let the bias go, we can then make the conscious decision to change and correct what I like to call a very destructive “habit of thought.”
Mark has a bias. He believes that all fully-abled (or, as he is fond of saying with a nod toward Father Time, “temporarily-abled”) people look down on him and others with disabilities. This misbelief – that all members of a given group are biased-is perhaps the only prejudice that is actually tolerated in the workplace. That toleration is unfortunate because by putting up with the personal fiction that “All men are sexist” or “All white people are racist” or, as in Mark’s case, “All fully-abled people look down on people with disabilities,” we promote the notion that some biases are acceptable and others are not; nothing could be further from the truth.
Mark’s Alleged Benefit:
Prejudices like Mark’s – I’ll clumsily call it the “bias bias” – are usually triggered by a desire to protect the misbeliever from a repetition of emotional pain. From Mark’s point of view, as destructive as his bias is, it does keep him from being caught off guard next time he is treated like a child or ignored as if he, and his wheelchair, are invisible. Mark, you see, is a paraplegic who for years has been patronized by strangers. Because of these bad experiences, he has developed a bias against anyone who offers him assistance. The bias is so bad that, at even the simplest offer of kindness, he is apt to bristle and snap, “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.” Sadly, Mark has become just as biased as that minority of people who assume that “All people with disabilities are to be patronized and pitied.”
The Price Mark Pays for His Bias:
Clearly this bias does not serve Mark well. Not only does it trap him in a perpetually defensive stance against what he sees as a hostile world, it prevents him from forming the kind of relationships that could enhance his life and, ultimately, soften his perspective.
I’d like to be able to say that an attitude like Mark’s is unusual. It is not; too many of us cling to biases without realizing that we are addicted to what we think they do for us. What we forget is that those meager benefits serve only to mask the terrible price we pay in lost relationships, diminished effectiveness, and misplaced opportunities.
Bias Basics Definitions:
Bias: An inflexible positive or negative belief about the nature, character, or abilities of an individual that is based on a generalized idea about the group to which the person belongs. Note: Bias is an attitude, not a behavior.
Kinship Group: Any population that shares a self- or externally-ascribed characteristic that sets it apart from others. That characteristic can range anywhere from race or gender to hobbies, interests, or shared life-circumstance. Through the identification and creation of shared kinship groups, we can change our definition of individuals from “them” to “us” and, thereby, reduce feelings of bias against them.
1. It is possible to eliminate all but the most deeply-rooted biases through the breaking of inaccurate and nonfunctional “habits of thought.”
2. Members of any kinship group are capable of bias; no one group is any more apt to be biased than another.
3. Having a bias does not automatically mean that a person is lacking in character; it does, however, mean that they are incapable of perceiving the object of their bias accurately.
4. Just because a given behavior is consistent with a biased attitude does not necessarily mean that it reflects a biased attitude.
5. Any effort to defeat bias must, of course, honor differences, but, more importantly, needs to focus on and highlight what we share.
6. One reason we have difficulty giving up our biases is that we have the illusion that they benefit us in some way.
For more information contact Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. at Cross-Cultural Communications, 4585 48th Street, San Diego, CA 92115. Phone numbers: (619) 583-4478 / (800) 858-4478 or by e-mail at: STPhD@Thiederman.com, Or visit their website at http://www.thiederman.com/
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