How can you teach your team to disrupt bias so that they can treat one another with respect, make more rational, impartial decisions, and collaborate in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts?
Much has been written about unconscious bias training: when it is helpful, and when it can backfire. I’ll say this. There are some trainings that are enormously helpful, and others that aren’t. The thing that most often goes wrong is that it leaves people clear about the problem but unclear about how to fix it. This is a recipe for paralysis, or what I think of as “bummer liberalism.” Luckily, there are plenty of things we can do to solve the problem.
The key thing for leaders to do is not to boil the ocean and try to educate their teams about all biases or bias as an abstraction. Rather, the idea is to teach a team to disrupt the biases relevant to the actual people in the room. Trying to be aware of every bias that might possibly be present is too much.
Also, there are very few absolutes. What might work for some or even many people won’t work for others. The point is to listen when someone tells you that your use of language bothered them, and to be both kind and clear when someone’s language bothers you.
For example, I hate it when people refer to adult women as “girls.” But I don’t speak for all women. Others don’t mind. But if you’re working with me, please don’t don’t persist in calling me a girl, justifying the choice of words by telling me that “other women prefer to be called “girl.” You’re not talking to other women, you’re talking to me.
Of course, if a person has a deeply ingrained habit of referring to women as “girls,” I need to be patient–and persistent, as long as I can tell they are trying to change that habit of speech when talking to me. They’re not going to be able to change the habit after I tell them once. And of course I don’t get to tell them what words to use when interacting with other women.
Yes, it would be nice if there were absolute “rules.” But human communication has never followed predictable, rule-based patterns. We need to adjust how we are talking depending on who we are talking to. Creating a culture where people can educate each other about specific biases will disrupt bias before it disrupts your work and your relationships.
In this episode, Wesley and I discuss strategies for preventing bias with Kasia Musur. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts, or here: https://www.justworktogether.com/podcast-season-2