Overcoming Bias: A Personal Experience



Applying simple wisdom to guide one’s personal and professional integrity


The hurtful words of a friend in the same profession, during a recent encounter, brought to mind troubling issues about both of us. Yet because of that incident, I also recalled the wise words of a past mentor: “A mind made noble leads a noble life.” This simple wisdom has consoled me for 25 years, helping me cope with new jobs, business failures, divorce, and other challenges and disappointments, positive and negative, personal and professional. The near-universal applicability of the phrase always astonishes me.

A respected professor gave that advice to me in high school, when he noticed how I perceived and responded to difficult situations. It led me to better understand myself and the world around me as a youth. It still rings true for me today as an adult, as I’ve tried to apply his hopeful message to the difficult situation of encountering and overcoming bias.

Bias: Conscious or unconscious beliefs that influence a person’s perceptions or actions, which may cause that person to become partial or prejudiced. (Source: Glossary, The SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge, 2017)

Throughout my life and career I’ve experienced biases large and small. An employer criticized my flowery writing in terms of my Latino roots. My neighbor’s brother from a military community looks askance because I’ve never served in the armed forces. At a Chilean national organization, I was disparaged for being of Cuban heritage. A peer in academia considers me inferior because I don’t ply my craft in a scholarly setting, preferring the world outside the ivory tower.

Recalling my professor’s counsel that a mind made noble leads a noble life, I usually decided that these incidents were based on misinformation or half-baked reasoning, and that if learning took hold among their perpetrators, the biases underlying their actions would be overcome.

The recent incident involving my friend, however, made me wonder whether some biases cannot be overcome. Both of us are industrial/organizational psychologists. We have worked together for years on countless projects. As we passed through Coral Gables on our drive back to Miami International Airport, I pointed out the house where I grew up. “I’m stunned!” she said. “Your family home is really nice. I had no idea you grew up in such an affluent community!” Such casual bias left me speechless. “I thought that with your being Hispanic, and raised by single parent, you grew up in the barrio!” My reaction (“Bleepity-bleep!”) stayed inside my head. Because I didn’t respond out loud or make a fuss, as far as she knew I had just shrugged off her remarks.

But the episode stuck with me. The more I thought about my friend, the more I realized that bias tainted everything she said and did. I just never saw it quite so clearly—until it was directed at me.

Now I remembered her joke to a visitor from Japan about Asians and IQ tests . . . her comment that some men are better at manual labor . . . her declaration that a certain ethnic group has a stronger work ethic . . . her enthusiasm for seeking out minorities to prove her theories about achievement. All of these were signals that she makes decisions about people based on stereotypes, without accounting for individual differences. I remembered other incidents, which revealed that she also makes decisions about situations based on preconceived notions, without comprehensive evaluation of the scenario at hand. There was that time she skimmed a public document for review, rather than read it thoroughly. I saw bias in her approach to critical workplace communications: how she provides feedback, what she considers acceptable conversations at conferences.

On reflection I saw that she regularly made snap judgments, which often required calamitous debates to unseat. Interactions I had perceived as a collaboration of rivals, or as positive conflicts leading to better results, now left a bad taste in my mouth. Finally I recognized these as painful examples of bias.

My realization gave way to sadness. “A mind made noble leads a noble life.” Whose mind needed to be made noble? Bias shapes her thinking, but I hadn’t even recognized her biases, much less worked to overcome them. I’d had a duty to make her mind noble by sharing my perspective and combating her misinformation—and failed miserably.

No more. I’m done with bias. I’m taking my professor’s wisdom to heart and will no longer accept such behavior. I will shine a light on bias in others, and be aware of it in myself.

It’s not the impact of bias that defines us, it’s how we respond to it. In this global day and age, news stories and social media tell us all about other people’s biases. But the actual experience of bias tends to be much more personal. We each encounter it in some way. Our response to bias shapes our thinking—and us. For those who are truly culturally aware, bias is a mere hurdle to be overcome. To lead a noble life, we must ennoble minds to become bias-free.

I’ve come up with a couple of variations on my professor’s words of wisdom, based on my experiences. A mind made global leads a noble life. And a mind that makes others noble dreams a better life.

That said, I implore you to follow these guidelines for a bias-free workplace:

  • Expose bias, whether explicit or implicit. Challenge the thinking of those who make decisions based on stereotypes or preconceived notions. Help them rethink their biases by exploring the logic—or absence of logic—behind their generalizations. Don’t be afraid to ask, “What you mean by that? Care to explain further?” More thoughtful, if not artful, ideas and decisions will result.
  • Eliminate your own biases. Everyone has preconceived notions about people and situations, including ourselves. It’s not enough to question others; we must reflect on our own biases and recognize when they’re unfounded. Try to analyze how those cognitions formed. Do they even make sense in a given situation? Most of us will see that our biases don’t really link to our day-to-day circumstances.
  • Just say no! There is no workplace scenario in which bias and its consequences are acceptable, even under the guise of jocularity or good intentions. Tolerating this type of behavior only opens the door to malignant conditions. Don’t let bias go unchecked, and don’t shrug it off, or else an unacceptable situation will only fester.

How do you develop your bias-free perspective? How do you flex the competencies of Ethical Practice, Global & Cultural Effectiveness, Relationship Management and other standards to address bias, diversity and inclusion, and conflict? What role do you play as a business professional in stamping out explicit or implicit bias?



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