Our biases have been developed through the stories of our lives. From birth, our parent’s beliefs become part of our unconscious, very personal, ecosystem; the cultural norms of our youth begin creating our lifelong beliefs, habits, behaviors, and identity; the schools we attend introduce us to the way the world works and how to behave accordingly; our professions are chosen to comfortably maintain the biases we’ve accrued and person we’ve become.
Net net, our lives are a conglomeration of our history and unconscious biases, causing us to live and work, marry and spend time with people whose norms, interpretations, and beliefs are very similar to ours.
Our normal skill sets and brain neurology aid and abet us: we unwittingly listen through biased filters and hear restricted versions of what was said (I wrote a book on this: What? Did you really say what I think I heard? ); we play and read and watch according to what we’re comfortable with and rarely venture far afield; and aided by the way our brains filter and prune incoming data, we notice what we notice in response to our personal norms, values, and learned habits.
Our lives are lived in a reality of our own making to maintain our status quo. And yet, regardless of our natural biases, we seem to believe, with certainty, that what we see, hear, and feel is ‘real’. We even restrict our lives accordingly – our politics, our curiosity, what we read, our professional choices. In other words, we each live in a unique reality that gets maintained every moment of every day.
Our personal ‘reality’ is the basis of our unconscious biases and interpretations; so automatic and habituated, so accepted by all around us that we’re often unaware that our actions may harm others whose world views are different from ours.
WE CANNOT UNDERSTAND OTHERS
Given the subjective nature of our lives we cannot help but judge others accordingly. I, for one, never lock doors. My car is always unlocked. My house is always open even when I travel. Many people would find this unthinkable, but they don’t know my reality. As an incest survivor and a rape victim, I always need a quick way in and out. If a door is locked around me, I hyperventilate, panic. Terrifying. But without understanding my reality, you might have judged my actions as being unsafe.
Given the givens, it’s obvious that none of us can truly understand another’s interpretations of anything, or their resulting behaviors. And even though it’s difficult to even notice anything we’re not programmed to notice, we judge each other’s actions against our own.
A problem emerges when we run into others with different lifestyle choices, or communication styles, or education, or assumptions, or race, or political beliefs and behave automatically in ways that inadvertently harm them. We may not have the skills to connect with them in ways they understand or wrongly misinterpret their intent or judge their choices.I believe that most people don’t intend to harm anyone. But without common ground, the best we can do is act from our habituated interpretations and assume because we ‘mean well’ that we’re not causing harm.
NEED FOR CHANGE
Historically, we’ve done a bad job resolving the problems of inherent bias that may ultimately harm others. I think this might be changing. Companies and public servants are now taking unconscious bias seriously and requiring unconscious bias and diversity training in the hopes of giving people new choices and eradicating harm. Good. But I have a concern.
As someone who has spent decades coding and scaling the stages of how human systems change, I know it’s not possible to cause change from the outside, by merely trying to change a behavior. To change, we must each find a way to shift our own core norms and biases from within (i.e. inside/out).
Current training approaches offer information, practice, scientific data, videos, etc., assuming that the offered data will cause behavior change (outside/in). But that’s like asking a forward moving robot to move backwards by showing it videos of other robots moving backward! Obviously the change must come from new programming. You can’t change a behavior by trying to change a behavior.
Merely assuming that people can change when offered ‘good’ or ‘rational’ reasons to change cannot fix the problem permanently because it:
- doesn’t get to the root of someone’s unconscious, and very subjective, biases;
- tries to persuade and change behaviors with subjectively chosen information that doesn’t address the neurochemistry that triggers the originating bias;
- has no way of knowing the full range of unconscious biases within each individual learner;
- doesn’t teach how to transcend someone’s habituated ‘unconscious triggers’ that go off automatically when their beliefs are invaded;
- fails to install permanent, instinctive, alternative neural circuits that cause new behaviors.
Current unconscious bias and diversity training assumes people can learn enough from recognizing problems and practicing ‘real’ situations, etc. to recognize their unconscious bias in hopes they’ll know when it’s time to change behaviors. But with our choices arising in five one-hundredths of a second from automatic and electrochemical neural circuits, it’s hard to know exactly how to change a possibly offending behavior in time. 🙁
In other words, just when our brains are unconsciously registering ALERT, we are supposed to tell ourselves ‘Nope. Wrong thinking. Don’t do that. Do something different. NOW!’ just as it’s occurring. It’s possible to do so, but not with the training currently offered.
WHAT IS BIAS? AND WHY IS IT SO HARD TO CHANGE?
Bias is the unconscious, habitual, involuntary, and historic reaction to something deemed ‘different’ (skin color, gender, lifestyle choices, etc.) that negatively triggers someone’s largely unconscious beliefs and values causing an immediate, unconscious, and automatic reaction.
Our reactions to external stimuli follow our brain’s historic and habituated neural pathways whenever our unconscious triggers go off. To alter these, it’s necessary to go to the source where they occur in the brain; it’s not possible to permanently change behaviors by merely changing behaviors. Changing core biases permanently is not a behavior change issue; it’s a core Identity/Belief problem that must be resolved at the source, within the system that created it. Basically, this level of change is a systems problem.
WE MUST UNDERSTAND SYSTEMS TO ADDRESS BIAS
A system is a conglomeration of things that all agree to the same rules. For us, our system keeps us who we are as unique individuals, a composite of our physiology and neurology mixed with our norms, culture, history, values, beliefs, dreams that we hold largely unconsciously and formed during our lifetimes. Systems always seek stability; as a way to maintain balance, they define our politics, our mate selection, even how we listen to others with an unconscious structure of filters that get triggered by situations that make us uncomfortable.
When we try to get others to change by merely requiring behavior changes, their internal systems resist as there is no neurological, physiological foundation from which to act. For permanent change to occur, for new behaviors to be chosen, there must be a change in core beliefs before new skills or situations are offered.
Here are the elements necessary to include in bias or diversity training to trigger permanent behavior change:
- Listening: our habituated listening filters and neural pathways automatically bias whatever anyone says to us; we set up our lives to avoid discomfort, and uniquely interpret differences in what has been said so our brains can keep us comfortable. When information is offered as evidence, our historic, habituated, biased listening filters kick in and uniquely interpret incoming data, often differently than the intended meaning. Indeed, it’s not even possible to hear anyone without bias; when what we hear (or see, or feel) makes us uncomfortable, we react historically regardless of how far the intended meaning is from our interpretation.
- Questions: all normal questions are biased by the Asker’s subjective curiosity, thereby restricting the Responder’s replies to the Responder’s reaction and interpretation of what was heard, and potentially overlooking real answers.
- Historic: biases are programmed in from the time we’re born. Every day we wake up with the same biases, kept in place by our choice of friends, TV, neighborhoods, professions, reading materials, etc. To permanently shift our biases, we’d have to change our historic programming.
- Physiological: who we ‘are’ is systemic; our beliefs and norms, character and values have been programmed in and become our Identity, creating the behaviors and responses that will unconsciously maintain our status quo in everything we do and every action we take.
- Triggers: because of our lifetime of inculcated beliefs, values, norms and outlook, our brains react chemically, unconsciously, and automatically when there is an untoward activity.
- Information: our training programs typically tell, show, explain, offer stories, videos, etc. etc. using our biased choices, in our favored formats, in our languaging, in hopes that our information triggers recognition, or new behavior adoption to people who may not process what we’re telling them in the way we would prefer. They may not interpret, or know how to recognize a need for, or understand, how to make sense of whatever we’re telling them.
- Behaviors: as the expression and execution of our beliefs and status quo, behaviors translate our core systemic beliefs and norms into daily action. Behaviors represent us; they are not ‘us’.
To change behaviors permanently it’s necessary to change the system, the programming, that created them to begin with. And this cannot be accomplished by merely trying to change the behaviors that created the problem to begin with. Remember Einstein?
CHANGE IS A SYSTEMS PROBLEM
Change is the alteration of something that has existed in a certain way, using specific and accepted norms, in a specific configuration, for a period of time. To amend our responses to bias, we must first recognize, then modify, the specific triggers (historically produced for a reason) that have been developed to operate unconsciously as the norm.
It’s basically a systems problem: for permanent change to occur, we must reconfigure the system that has created and maintains the status quo, and has operated ‘as is’ for some amount of time. Anything new coming into our system (any problem to fix, any new information that creates disruption, any new activity the system is asked to take) demands changing the status quo.
Indeed, any new decision is a change management problem. The way we are addressing the problem now doesn’t enable permanent change. Change means that a system must go through a process to become something different:
- a trigger alerts the status quo that something may be awry;
- a careful examination by all elements within the status quo must occur to find any incongruence;
- agreement within the system (rules, stakeholders, identity, etc.) that change is necessary and that a fix won’t cause permanent disruption;
- an initial attempt to fix anything missing on its own (using the same elements that created the problem to begin with);
- the realization that the problem cannot be fixed from within the system;
- an examination by everything that created the problem of any new possibilities that will create Systems Congruence;
- an understanding and acceptance of the downside and disruption of a change (i.e. if politics change, how do we speak with family? If same-sex relationships, what happens with our church group?);
- a fix is found that is agreeable, with full knowledge of how to circumvent any disruption it will cause;
- new habits, new triggers, new neural pathways, etc. are developed in a way that incorporate the ‘new’ with the old to minimize disruption.
If all of the above aren’t managed, the system will fill in the blanks with something comfortable and habituated (regardless of its efficacy). In other words, if there is not systemic agreement, no known way to resolve the problem using its current givens, no known way to incorporate something new with the existing system so the system doesn’t implode, no change will happen regardless of the need or the efficacy of the solution.
Indeed – and I can’t say this often enough – you can’t change a behavior by trying to change a behavior. And all current bias and diversity training involves a focus on getting behaviors changed without addressing the source that created the behaviors and triggers to begin with.
WHAT IS A BEHAVIOR?
Current bias training attempts to get behaviors changed by offering information: showing and telling people what’s wrong with what they’re doing and what ‘right’ would look like – all of which can be misinterpreted, misread, or objected to, regardless of our intent.
While it certainly can make people more aware, these attempts will not cause permanent change: they develop no new habituated triggers or neural pathways to set off a new response to a stimulus. Let’s delve into this a bit.
Behaviors are what we do – transactions automatically initiated by our core system of beliefs, norms, and experience – to express who we are. We all develop behaviors that ‘be’ who we are, to represent us. Behaviors are the output, the forward movement of the robot, the actions others see.
To permanently change a behavior, a system must:
- shift the core beliefs that inform any habituated, unconscious bias and develop additional beliefs, assumptions and triggers;
- create new neural pathways to the brain that lead to choosing more respectful outputs, habits, behaviors;
- listen with a different listening filter than the habituated ones;
- enable the person to change themselves, using their own unconscious system of norms to design new behaviors that won’t offend the system;
- interpret another’s actions in a neutral way that doesn’t offend our own beliefs – or change our beliefs.
To change our unconscious, automatic responses that cause us to respond defensively, the system that has created and maintains the status quo must be reconfigured to produce alternate outputs while still maintaining Systems Congruence. Offering any sort of information before the system knows why, how, when, or if to do anything different – a belief change – will only inspire resistance as the system won’t know how to apply it. It’s a belief change issue: when we change our habituated beliefs and norms (our programming), our behavior will automatically, and permanently, change.
CHANGE IS A SYSTEMS PROBLEM
Real change demands a systemic shift to create new triggers, new assumptions, new neural pathways, and ultimately, as an outcome, new behaviors. No one, no information, no person, from outside is able to go into someone’s unconscious to (re)create all these things. And permanent change will not happen until it does.
The goal is not to train someone to rid themselves of unconscious bias; it’s to help their system discover the underlying beliefs that cause them and enable them to develop new beliefs and responses.
Over the past decades, I’ve coded the 13 steps that constitute the route to systemic, human change so people can make their OWN internal changes that will lead to new choices, i.e. new behaviors. I’ve taught this model in sales as Buying Facilitation® to global corporations (KPMG, Morgan Stanley, IBM, P&G, Kaiser, etc.) for over 30 years, and written several books on it. The book that details each of the stages is Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell.
We must become Facilitators, not Influencers. We must teach folks to create and habituate new neural pathways and filters.
- Listening: We must avoid habituated neural pathways when listening to others. I have a whole chapter on this in What?. Not difficult – you just need to develop triggers that will alert you to the need to do something different before you get triggered into a biased reaction.
- Questions: I developed a new form of question that doesn’t interrogate and is not biased by the needs of the questioner, but instead acts like a GPS to guide people through their own unconscious. These Facilitative Questions are systemic, use specific words, in specific order, that traverse through the steps of change sequentially so others can note their own incongruencies. So: What would you need to know or believe differently to be willing to take an extra step and consciously choose to listen from a ‘different ear’?
- Beliefs: by shifting the focus from changing behaviors to first changing beliefs and systems, we end up with permanent core change, new triggers and habits.
- Information: we make several types of information available for the learner to choose from, to fit their own learning criteria and styles, and needs to fit into their unique areas of deficiency.
I’ve developed a new way to train that facilitates self-learning and permanent change from within the system. For those wishing a full discussion, I’ve written an article on this that appeared in The 2003 Annual, Volume 1 Training (I’m happy to send you a more specific discussion of this if you’re not already bored) Just note: my process leads people, without any bias, to those places in their brains, into their system of beliefs and cultural norms, which made the decisions to employ their biased behaviors to begin with, and teaches them how to reconfigure their system to adopt something new (so long as its aligned with their beliefs). We are making the unconscious conscious and developing more appropriate triggers and behaviors.
How will you know that by adding systemic change elements to your training that you can enable more people to make more appropriate behavioral choices around their bias?
If you would like my help in designing a program that resolves unconscious biases permanently, I’d love to help. I believe it’s an important task. I believe it’s time we had the tools to enable learners to permanently change and become non-judgmental, accepting, and kind. And above all, cause no harm. All of our lives depend on it.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.