The word bias comes from the Old French word biais, which meant against the grain, slanted, or oblique. It was primarily used in connection with the game of bowls (similar to bocce) that used bowls weighted on one side in order to make their path more oblique than straight. Breaking through biases is about recognizing that we all have biases or slants that cause us to lean in a particular direction when we really intend to travel straight. We need to recognize that most biases cannot be eliminated, but they can be interrupted before they influence our actions. There is no doubt that there are many people who are intelligent in spite of their biases; The Next IQ asks how much more intelligent that intelligence can get if the biases were interrupted so new information could seep in.
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. —Leo Tolstoy (Russian author, 1828–1910)
The following Bias Breakers are generally useful to raise awareness of and interrupt all the various biases, but they are especially effective for breaking biases related to similarities in identity and other visible differentiators between people.
1. Pay Attention to Surprise.
Our reaction of surprise is one of the best tools that we have to recognize and interrupt bias. Surprise is our brain’s way of communicating to us that the reality in front of us is different than the expectation. Even if we are not fully aware of the expectations we hold in our mind, we are aware of our surprise. The essence of bias is that it causes us to create expectations about certain realities without actually experiencing those realities.
Surprise is that difference between expectations and experience.
- For one full day (one full week if you are ambitious), keep a written list of everything that surprises you. Here are just a few examples from some of our clients’ Surprise Lists: “I was not expecting her work product to be this good.” “I was expecting him to handle that feedback much better than he did.” “I didn’t expect her to look like that.” “I didn’t expect this restaurant to have anything I would like.” “I didn’t expect the train to be crowded today.” Once you have your list, ask yourself why each of the surprises was, in fact, a surprise. Why was I not expecting her work product to be this good?
- As you become more aware of what surprises you, start assessing the strength of your surprise. Rate your surprise from 1 to 10 with 1 being a very mild surprise to 10 being an utterly unexpected shock. The stronger your surprise, the deeper the bias.
Keeping a list of your surprises and assessing the strength of each surprise will raise your awareness of how often and by what you are surprised. Use this awareness of your surprise to people, events, and things to learn about your own expectations of the world around you. This is equally applicable to individuals, teams, or organizations. Doing this exercise as a team or an organization can be especially illuminating when you are creating a strategic partnership with a new organization, selecting vendors, or deciding how you plan to identify your organization’s high performers.
Once you are aware of your own expectations, you are then in control of allowing that slant to impact your actions…or not.
2. Oppose Yourself.
A great way to activate our individual or organizational critical thinking skills is to deliberately challenge our own thinking. When you make a decision about a person, an event, or a thing (especially if you are able to arrive at that decision quickly, easily, or very comfortably), ask yourself to list all the reasons why you should decide to the contrary. Try this exercise in the reverse as well by actively listing all the reasons why you should choose an option that you easily or quickly rejected.
Sample decisions from our organizational clients where oppositional thinking actually led them to different decisions include hiring decisions, promotion decisions, vendor selections, technology selections, selections for event venues, and so on. Samples from our individual clients include selections of employers, decisions regarding resignation, choices on whether to/how to receive constructive feedback, and so on. With both organizations and individuals, we have seen the many “aha!” moments that occur when oppositional thinking is actively engaged.
Deliberately opposing your own decisions forces you to see beyond the “reasons for” something to actively consider the “reasons against” that same thing, or vice versa. This exercise interrupts our leaning to see only the positive in some things and only the negative in other things. Since our brains are weighted to see what we expect to see instead of what is actually in front of us, this exercise adds weight to the other side so our brain can actually evaluate all options equally critically.
3. Ask One Question.
For one day (or, again, for one week if you are ambitious), ask at least one question in each substantive conversation about something you already think you know. If you are in a meeting, challenge yourself to ask a question instead of offering your perspective. If you are mentoring someone, ask a question to get to know your mentee deeper instead of offering up advice. If there is someone in the workplace that you don’t know especially well, ask a question to get a dialog started.
This can be especially illustrative in dealing with colleagues with whom you work frequently. Ask one question per conversation and see if the answers surprise you. If they do, then reread the section on using surprises as awareness tools! One of our clients implemented the One-Question model in its senior leadership meetings by beginning each meeting with a round of each leader asking one question about the topic(s) in the agenda. Only when all the questions were asked did the meeting proceed with the actual agenda, and if the round of questions did not feel substantial enough, the group often agreed to do a second round of questions before they continued. The One-Question model is not powerful because of the answers that the questions can solicit, but because the questions themselves prime people for solving the problems by thinking about the issues from the angles of all the different questions asked.
4. Focus on Behaviors.
When you are in a situation (as an individual or an organization) to evaluate someone’s potential, accomplishments, and/or abilities, challenge yourself to focus only on evaluating his or her behaviors, not your impressions. This is equally important in both formal and informal evaluative situations since formal evaluations are usually the cumulative result of informal evaluations.
For every evaluative statement regarding someone’s potential, think of least one behavior (ideally two or three behaviors) that supports your evaluation. If you cannot identify behaviors, the evaluation is more of an opinion than an assessment. Opinions are fraught with potential biases where evaluations of specific behaviors focus more on what you actually see instead of your expectations of what you think you should see.
One caveat to keep in mind about evaluating behaviors is that we don’t perceive the same behaviors expressed by different people in the same way. So, an additional exercise in bias breaking can be to take the identified behaviors and ask yourself if you would evaluate the same behaviors if they were expressed by someone else who was very different.
Here’s a list of more specific Bias Breakers:
- When conducting an evaluation process — e.g., for work allocation, employee feedback, promotion, mentoring, or sponsoring — integrate components of blind grading into the process.
- During recruiting and hiring processes, replace resumes with intake forms.
- Take interview notes on blank pieces of paper.
- Play Devil’s Advocate against your own initial opinion.
- Create accountability mechanisms that can be witnessed and validated by others.
- Focus on “key moments” when unconscious bias interruption is most crucial.
- Share something surprising about yourself and ask others to share something surprising about themselves.
- Make lists of requirements or criteria before making decisions.
- Conduct challenging conversations while taking a walk rather than sitting still — or over a cup of coffee or lunch, if possible.
- Build in mandated (not optional) disagreement into decision-making processes for yourself and groups, especially committee-based decisions.
- Ask “why” at least 10 times to uncover where bias entered the thought process.
- Challenge your “instincts” to make sure they are not uninformed and unhelpful implicit biases. Instincts are informed biases, thus helpful.
- Find ways to keep people on your radar screen. And do your best to stay on the radar screens of others.