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Understanding unconscious bias: Your perception becomes your truth

Spanish philosopher George Santayana said in the Life of Reason: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (1905-1906) If there is any truth to the notion that history repeats itself, then Santayana’s prophetic insights are as relevant today as they were more than 100 years ago.

How often do we consciously give thought to the origins of our opinions of others, and the reasons behind our prejudices regarding gender, culture, or age? Is it possible to alter our perceptions and attitudes regarding our leaders, colleagues and clients, or do our inherent biases render us incapable of acquiring a higher level of open-mindedness and acceptance? Are we willing to see others through a new lens?

Many organizations are investing a great deal of time and money on diversity and inclusion initiatives, striving for greater equity, understanding, collaboration and acceptance, yet the consequences of unconscious biases continue to manifest in the boardrooms, lunchrooms and daily interactions between teams at all levels. Despite the proliferation of training programs designed to educate today’s workforce regarding discrimination, injustice and indifference, shifting the collective mindset remains an uphill battle.

The roots of our unconscious biases go deep. We establish our frame of reference, both internal and external, from an early age. As a first-generation Australian, I learned about unconscious bias from my parents who emigrated to a new country, beginning a new life after the devastation of war, loss and humiliating experiences that shook them both to the core. The remnants of shame and degradation they carried in the aftermath were often compounded in everyday business and life situations.

I recall my mother telling me stories about customers who would come into her store and upon hearing her “foreign” accent, would speak slowly or awkwardly, as if she were incapable of speaking the same language. She would be deeply embarrassed by these encounters, although ironically she spoke better English than many of her patrons due to her level of education, passion for cryptic crosswords and love of reading.

My mother’s experience was certainly not unique. I recently worked with a client who holds the position of COO in his organization. He spoke candidly with his team about his own experience as an immigrant. He shared that there are still occasions in a business setting where he feels some level of discomfort regarding his ethnicity.

My client’s revelation struck a chord with the group. He told of his struggle during his career; suppressing his own unique identity. Encouraging authenticity, however, presents a different set of challenges due to the fact that workplaces establish a particular culture with the objective of developing teams whose values mesh well with those of their employer. Teams, of course, are compromised of individuals who possess their own beliefs and attitudes that may not always conform to the norm.

We have formed opinions about people based on our past experiences, socialization process and what others have told us to be true. Was there a time in our personal history when we carved out the space to develop an objective, open-minded point of view? Our initial impressions are subjective and our filters are well honed.

Can you alter your biases and patterns of thinking? If you can get to the source of your perceptions, you will be better able to understand how you arrived at conclusions about yourself, other people, and the world around you. You may discover that your preconceived ideas no longer serve you, nor may they be your truth today.

 

About the author and the blog:

Today’s blog contains excerpts from Michelle Ray’s book: Lead Yourself First! Indispensable Lessons in Business & in Life.  A former media executive and highly sought-after business speaker, Michelle Ray (@michelleraycsp) has delivered has delivered her powerful messages on leadership, personal accountability and engaged workplaces to the C-Suites of global corporations, academia, diverse association and government groups since 1995. She is the founder of the Lead Yourself First Institute

 

Photo credit: “Cute Girl With Painted Hands” by stockimages

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