Living With Bias

As I write this column, commentaries and speculations on bias and the Trayvon Martin tragedy are circulating widely. These discussions prompted me to reflect on how we treat bias.

What is bias? Simply stated, a bias is a predisposition. While the diversity field focuses on biases that can lead to discrimination with respect to demographic dimensions, the reality is predispositions can exist around any topic.

What are sources of biases? Three common sources are parental guidance, education and experience. As an employee matures, he or she can anticipate developing and holding a wide array of predispositions.

Some, perhaps most, will be deeply entrenched; others may be in the early, formative stages. As the individual accumulates reinforcements via education and experience, a predisposition may become more embedded.

What is wrong with bias? There is nothing inherently right or wrong about being biased. The danger comes when a predisposition compromises one’s ability to make quality decisions.

What is the diversity field’s position regarding bias? Diversity practitioners seek to reduce bias. Typically, this involves helping individuals get in touch with their biases. Practitioners and individuals with newly discovered awareness often believe this awareness reduces or eliminates biases.

Given how biases become embedded, minimizing or eliminating them can be a tall task. This does not mean bias reduction efforts should not be undertaken, but it does suggest attention should be given to complementing them with a capability to live effectively with bias.

How would requirements-driven decision making play out in the midst of biased predispositions? Years ago in a corporation struggling to manage African-American males, a senior executive told me he had never seen a competent African-American male. Let’s suppose he is asked to manage a newly hired, junior executive, African-American male. How might we coach the senior executive?

Our first task would be to help the executive understand the current reality of his managerial task; namely, to create an environment where the newly hired African-American male can contribute to his full potential. Also, we would assist the executive to better understand the requirements the African-American individual would have to meet.

Our second challenge would be to help the executive understand that his belief that he has never seen a competent African-American male constitutes a bias. For him, it is a factual, historical reality based on his experiences, but with respect to the new hire it is a predisposition.

Our third task would be to help the executive determine whether he wishes to act on this predisposition. A critical question would be whether the predisposition holds for the new hire.

Whatever the probability that it does not, a related question becomes, “If I act on a predisposition that may not be relevant, how costly will the corresponding poor decisions be for myself, my company and the employee?” Once the executive determined that, he would have to decide whether the risk of acting on the possibly irrelevant predisposition is acceptable.

Finally, we would encourage him to manage based on bona fide, bedrock requirements and not predispositions such as personal preferences, traditions and conveniences. Should he go with the requirements-driven option, and the African-American male blossoms into a top performer, the net result will not necessarily be a reduction of bias, but at a minimum it will foster an increased appreciation for the risk of acting on potentially irrelevant biases.

I am not suggesting diversity practitioners suspend efforts to minimize bias, but that they should foster their ability to deliberately think through the pros and cons of making decisions based upon bias. A major challenge would be to rethink the notion of bias and acknowledge that even with effective bias reduction programs, the predispositions in question are likely to persist. From this perspective, learning to make quality decisions in the presence of bias becomes an attractive, complementary alternative.

R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. is CEO of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training, founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and author of World Class Diversity Management: A Strategic Approach. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.