When I interviewed Hannah, she was filled with rage. If you took her word for it, you’d be convinced that every single adult male in the United States of America was sexist. Hannah had come to this conclusion because, as she put it, “I have been in the business world for 25 years and every one of my male bosses – three of them – were as sexist as it gets.”
Now, let’s see if we can figure this out. There are 142,000,000 adult males in the U.S.A.. Hannah knows three who are sexist. This means that in her direct experience—which is the only experience she can count on and, as will see below — even that might be faulty—she knows for sure that .000002 percent of American men are sexist. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even grasp how small a percentage that is. What I do know is that .000002 percent is hardly a statistic on which to base any opinion of an entire population of people.
Of course Hannah’s conclusion, and her bias, is ridiculous. I wager that had Hannah taken a moment to analyze why she believed what she did, she would have seen how weak the foundation for her belief was and begun the process of eroding a bias which no doubt had influenced her abilities to function and lead successfully in the workplace.
Here are a couple of questions that each of us would do well to ask about our biases. The answers might surprise you, and, as in Hannah’s case, they might just weaken your bias enough to give you a fighting chance at shoving it out of your way and minimizing its impact on your leadership abilities.
Question 1. Was the original source of my bias reliable?
In most cases, the answer will be “no.” You might, for example, discover that your bias was spawned, not by direct experience, but by the repeated messages of a frightened parent, by rumor, or by a media that loves to distort the truth. In the case of the media, you might bear in mind the journalistic dictum, “When it bleeds, it reads.”
Even if your bias did grow from actual experience, you will be surprised at how unreliable that experience can be. Unless an experience is well-rounded and repeated, it tells us little even about the person we actually encountered. This is because any experience can be grossly distorted by the presence of intense emotion, the trickery of self-fulfilling prophecy, or the filter of expectation. The result? A bias based on faulty information
Question 2: How often have you actually encountered people who conform to your bias?
Caution!: “Actually encountered” does not include media images or rumor or what other people say they know; all that counts here are personal encounters between yourself and members of the group in question. You will notice that I have deliberately said “encounters” not “encounter.” Too often biases grow out of one experience with one person or, at most, with one small group of people.
If we add to that, the problems with the reliability of experience discussed above, the notion of relying on scattered encounters for our conclusions becomes ludicrous.
The trick to bias dissection is to keep thinking. Each time a bias comes into your brain, put it under the microscope. How did you learn it? How many people do you know who conform to it? How much exposure have you had to that group as a whole? By the time you are finished, you will begin to doubt your previously inflexible belief and sometimes, just sometimes, doubt is a very good thing.
© Copyright Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.