Bias can be a heavy word. People often conflate it with prejudice, racism, discrimination, or sexism.
But bias, on its face, is not inherently good or bad. In the simplest of terms, our biases are our preferences.
Understanding two common myths around unconscious bias will help us better understand the role it plays at work.
Myth #1: Bias is inherently negative.
At our core, we all identify as good. So if we think bias is inherently negative and only bad people have it, we close off to exploring these topics further. We put up walls and say, “I'm not even going to go there, because I'm a good person. I try to treat people fairly.” We get defensive.
If we can recognize that we all have bias, we can reconcile the two opposing ideas that we can have bias and still be a good person. They can coexist. That's what helps us make progress.
In the workplace, our goal is not necessarily to change people's preferences. It is to ensure that they are thinking about the impact of those preferences and behaving in a way that creates an inclusive work environment, where everyone feels engaged, valued, and respected.
Myth #2: If bias is a natural part of the human condition and how the brain works, I can’t do anything about it.
After realizing that bias is natural and that biases don’t necessarily make you a bad person, people tend to lean into them. That can become problematic.
But neuroscience teaches us that we can mitigate our unconscious bias through neuroplasticity. Once we identify a bias and understand it’s impact, we can “re-wire” our brains to create new pathways and teach ourselves to think and act differently.
For example, if I have a bias that a certain team member is lazy, I will treat them accordingly. Most people won’t bring their best contribution under those circumstances, so my perception is confirmed, and the cycle continues. My bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But through neuroplasticity, I can interrupt that bias. I can create a new neural pathway where I support and engage this person, likely producing a better result and contribution from this individual than I would if I treat them as if they are lazy.
With intentional practice, our inherent biases don’t have to limit us or others. We have the ability to grow and change.
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