Today I Was Biased

This morning my 16-year-old informed me that tomorrow is “Senior Day” for Homecoming week and as part of the SGA leadership team, he has to dress up as a senior citizen. The immediate image in my head was that of an old man with a branded t-shirt, khaki pants held up by wide suspenders, and clunky white tennis shoes. So that’s what we went with.

Why that’s the image that popped into my mind, I don’t know. My dad is 71, he’s a senior citizen, and he’s never dressed like that. My uncles don’t dress like that. In fact, no senior men I know dress like that. But yet that’s the first image I have when I think of a senior man. And I realize that’s a very biased image.

Biases and perceptions have been on my mind a lot lately. On October 24th, my colleague Jillian and I will be traveling to Perdido Beach Resort to speak at the Alabama Association of Regional Councils Annual Conference and one of our sessions will be on Overcoming Bias. I’ve also been researching job requirements and disability accommodations for my capstone thesis for law school and much of my research includes discussions on biases and perceptions.

We all have biases and perceptions. Some are conscious biases, we know we have them, and some are unconscious. We may react a certain way in a given situation but haven’t yet connected the dots to understand why we always react that specific way. So, what are some steps we can take to minimize bias in the workplace?

  • Sit with your feelings. If you’re familiar with Emotional Intelligence, the first skill is self-awareness. Being aware of your own feelings. If you’re dealing with a difficult situation or decision, have to have a tough conversation, or just have some pressing thoughts running through your mind, find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted and ask yourself how you’re feeling and be honest about it. Are you angry, frustrated, sad, happy, confused? Don’t try to talk yourself out of how you’re feeling or think you should feel guilty for the emotions you’re experiencing, just feel them and ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Acknowledging the feelings is the first step to understanding them and learning how to manage them, which is the second skill of emotional intelligence; self-management.
  • Understand that biases can be positive or negative, and both can have a huge impact. We tend to think that biases are negative beliefs or views, but that’s not always the case. Imagine you have a great employee that reminds you of yourself when you were “that age” and so without even realizing you do it, you begin to give them preferential treatment. They get all the best assignments, you take them under your wing and teach them everything you know, you end up going out to lunch together more days than not to discuss work, and eventually the other members of your team start to get resentful of always being left out. Their performance starts to deteriorate, their morale slips further and further down, and you just can’t figure out why. And before you know it, your star performer seems unhappy too and appears to be avoiding you. You’re guilty of engaging in the Similar-to-Me Bias, you showed a preference toward the employee who you felt was most similar to you, without even realizing you were doing it.
  • Practice change. Your biases and perceptions are formed based on your experiences and environment. When we experience similar situations, we begin to create biases towards those types of situations; same with people. For example, if you hate going to the dentist, you talk yourself into how horrible going to the dentist for your checkup is going to be and the closer it gets the more you dread it and you are miserable the entire time you’re getting your cleaning done and you come out and you think about how miserable it was. What if you purposefully changed your approach. Instead of self-talk about how horrible the visit was going to be, what if instead you gave yourself a pep-talk about how it wouldn’t be that bad and you could handle it and that the dentist and hygienist are both really nice. And during the visit you tell yourself how well you’re doing and when it’s over you congratulate yourself on doing so well and how it wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Do you think that maybe after a few visits that might help change your mindset about going to the dentist? Same with those dreaded weekly meetings that last forever – try some positive self-talk and see if you can’t change your biases and perspective towards them, even if just a little.

My challenge for you this week: Pick one bias or perception that you want to change and start practicing.

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Lorrie Coffey