Russ: “Can I tell you what happened?” I nodded so he pulled me aside and said, “I’m only telling you because I know the work you’re in.”
Amy: “What happened?”
Russ: “I was at a fast food restaurant in town. My wife and I went in for dinner and all the employees—they were all teenagers—totally ignored us. We waited for them to turn around and take our order but they just kept talking with each other. I finally asked for help. After one of them finished talking with her friends, she turned around and said in a derogatory tone, “How can I help you?’ After we gave her our order, she yelled it back to the kitchen, then, without a word, she turned her back on me.”
Amy: “That must have been awkward. Are you telling me this because they were black teenagers?”
Russ: “Yes. And when the gal came over with our food, she slapped it down in front of us and walked away again without saying a word. We didn’t react. We just ate quickly, cleaned up after ourselves and left. I just wanted you to know how we were treated. That’s the way those people are.”
Amy: “That’s tough. Must have made you mad.”
Russ: “Not really.”
Amy: “I guess it was upsetting enough for you to tell me about it.”
Russ: “Yeah, it was disturbing.”
Amy: “So, did you talk with the manager?”
Russ: “Why would I do that?”
Amy: “Because you got sub-par service. May I ask you a question?” Russ nodded. “If those kids had been white, would you have complained to the manager?”
Russ: “Sure, I would have complained.”
Amy: “So you’re telling me that you have a lower standard for black kids than white kids?”
Russ: “No!” He looked thoughtful and then asked, “It won’t do any good to complain, will it?”
Amy: “Well, you won’t really know for sure until you find out, right? You could call and ask for the manager.”
Russ: “I’ll think about it.”
Until I asked the question, to help him consider getting more information, Russ hadn’t realized he was acting out an assumption he held about African American people.
What’s an assumption?
An assumption is an idea that we accept as true about a person, group of people or situation without proof. And then there’s the specific kind that Russ was acting on, called a hidden assumption.
What’s a hidden assumption?
It’s an inherent ‘blind spot’ in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion.
These types of conclusions are stored in in our brains, and because we encounter them so often in our own thinking and they’re reinforced by our background and cultural environments, we think these conclusions are “normal” and true.(1) They’re not, though. And, if left unchecked, they can hinder our ability to talk, behave and work collaboratively and kindly with our colleagues and clients.
Not all broken thinking and blind spots are labeled, but some are so common they are given names. The good news is once named, they’re easier to notice, analyze and ultimately debunk.
One example of a hidden assumption (also known as unconscious bias) is confirmation bias.
What’s confirmation bias?
Russ’ actions were influenced by confirmation bias. A common thinking mistake, it’s the tendency to overvalue data and observation that fits with, or confirms, our existing beliefs. While it seems obvious enough to avoid, confirmation bias is a particularly sinister kind of bias, because it affects not just intellectual or political debates, but also our relationships, personal finances, and even our physical and mental health, according to Terry Heick, developer of the Cognitive Bias Codex.”
Here are seven other common thinking mistakes that can affect our relationships and workplaces:(3)
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect
A cognitive bias in which individuals with a low level of knowledge in a particular subject mistakenly assess their knowledge or ability as greater than it is. If you know only a little about something, you see it simplistically—biasing you to believe that the concept is easier to comprehend than it may actually be. On the other hand, experts are often aware of what they don’t know and, in a sense, the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be—not out of lacking knowledge, but due to caution.(3)
- The Negativity Bias
While we like to win, we hate to lose even more. So, when we make a decision, we generally think in terms of outcomes – either positive or negative. The bias comes into play when we irrationally weigh the potential for a negative outcome as more important than that of the positive outcome.(3)
- Self-serving Bias
Have you ever failed an exam because your teacher hates you, and then go in the following week and ace the next one because you studied extra hard despite that teacher? Then you’ve engaged the self-serving bias. We attribute successes and positive outcomes to our doing when things go right; but, when we face failure and negative outcomes, we tend to attribute these events to other people or contextual factors outside ourselves.(3)
- The Curse of Knowledge and Hindsight Bias
Once you (truly) understand a new piece of information, that piece of information is now available to you and often becomes seemingly obvious. It might be easy to forget that there was ever a time you didn’t know this information and so, you assume that others, like yourself, also know this information.(3)
- Optimism/Pessimism Bias
We have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes, particularly if we are in good humor, and to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes if we are feeling down or have a pessimistic attitude.(3)
- The Backfire Effect
This refers to the strengthening of a belief even after it has been challenged. Because we don’t like change and don’t want to be perceived as wrong, we may hold on tighter than ever before to an idea.
- In-group Bias
This bias refers to the unfair favoring of someone from one’s own group. We might think we’re unbiased, impartial and fair, but we all succumb to this bias. This bias can be considered an advantage—favoring and protecting those similar to us, particularly with respect to kinship and the promotion of one’s own group.(3)
Awareness does not guarantee a change in behavior
There is no quick fix for unconscious bias. Pamela Newkirk, New York University professor and author of Diversity, Inc writes:
“Quick fixes like unconscious bias training or climate surveys—no matter how expertly administered—cannot begin to address, let alone repair, the damage of centuries of demeaning images of racial, ethnic and religious minorities still perpetuated in film, on television, in advertising, news outlets, on museum walls, public iconography, and, indeed at every level of our educational system.”(4)
In some cases, unconscious bias training has increased defensiveness, reinforced stereotypes, and contributed to stonewalling in organizations, all of which has ultimately been expressed through anger and resentment.(5)
Unconscious bias training alone can backfire, but there’s a solution: the development of cultural intelligence.
Cultural intelligence does change behavior. It’s the ability to recognize and appreciate another’s perspective and adapt our behavior to show genuine respect toward different cultural practices and perspectives.
So how can a leader develop an organization’s cultural intelligence and lessen the impact of unconscious bias in their organization?
What’s a leader to do?
If you’re reading this blog, you care about equality in your organization. As the leader, you have enormous insight and expertise about how the organization works for people like you. So you can:
- Recognize that equality or “fairness” is one of the most powerful shared beliefs in American culture—that belief that everyone should have a fair shot at life and be rewarded for what they’ve achieved.(6)
- Learn what it’s like for people who are different from you and make sure they have a positive experience in the organization.
- Hold monthly Listening Circles(7).
- Model the understanding that we all have different experiences,
- Encourage colleagues to listen and get more information rather than making and acting on assumptions about people’s experience.
What happened with Russ?
The next day I ran into Russ.
Russ: “Guess what?! I’ve got good news. I called the restaurant.”
Amy: “Cool! So, what happened?
Russ: “I asked to speak with the manager. When she came on the line, I told her what happened. She told me that the store was in the middle of a turnaround and that she needed more evidence to make her case that customer service needed to improve. She told me she would start working with the teenagers today. She said she was grateful I called and wanted me to come back to the restaurant and have dinner on them. You know, I wouldn’t have called if you hadn’t encouraged me.”
Amy: “I’m glad I could help. Though I made a suggestion; you were the one with the courage to call and find out more information. Well done!”
Russ: Thank you.
What we know now
Half of publicly traded companies in the United States have held some variation of unconscious bias training; however, unconscious bias training without cultural intelligence does not guarantee a change in behavior for the better. To be effective, training must matter to the people at the top. And then without shame or blame, organizations can train their employees to see how unconscious bias inadvertently hinders productive conversations and actions. To work, employees need to be offered the opportunity to be empowered to engage in compassionate, respectful and regular cross-cultural conversations, thus, increasing productivity, collaboration, and innovation for everyone in the organization. –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD
- Banaji, M. & Greenwald, A. (2013) Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York: Delacorte Press.
- Heick, T. (Oct 14, 2019) Teach Thought. “The cognitive bias codex: A visual of 180+ cognitive biases.” https://www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/the-cognitive-bias-codex-a-visual-of-180-cognitive-biases/
- Dwyer, C. (Sept 7, 2018) Psychology Today. “12 common biases that affect how we make everyday decisions.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thoughts-thinking/201809/12-common-biases-affect-how-we-make-everyday-decisions
- Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity, Inc., New York: Bold Type Books.
- Storey, S. (Jan 15, 2017) Huffington Post. “Unconscious bias—making millions from theory.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/unconscious-bias-making-m_b_8771258
- Zheng, L. (October 28, 2019) Harvard Business Review. “How to show white men that diversity and inclusion efforts need them.” https://hbr.org/2019/10/how-to-show-white-men-that-diversity-and-inclusion-efforts-need-them
- Itzchakov, G & Kluger, A. (May 17, 2018) Organizational Dynamics. “The listening circle: A simple tool to enhance listening and reduce extremism among employees.” https://www.academia.edu/33365678/IN_PRESS_The_Listening_Circle_A_Simple_Tool_to_Enhance_Listening_and_Reduce_Extremism_Among_Employees
- Narishkin, A (2020) Hear Me Now? https://www.empoweringpartners.com/2020/01/hear-me-now/