I recently built a garden on my patio. One day a friend and I went to a store to purchase the fertilizer, seeds, plants, hoses, etc. to make it come alive. The garden is an opportunity to learn, and eat the fruits and vegetables of my labor. It is a venture outside of my comfort zone. We wandered up and down the aisles to complete our “to buy” list. With each step, my knowledge was starting to grow just as I hoped the plants would in their new garden.
I could not find an item on the list, and it was necessary to complete my shopping. I noticed an employee in jeans, tee-shirt, apron, and a low baseball cap arranging plants far across the garden center. I called to him and said, “Excuse me sir, can you help me find a trellis?” The employee looked up, pointed in a far corner of the garden area, and said, “They are over there, and I am a she.” I replied, “Thank you, I apologize.” I found my item, purchased the basket of gardening necessities, and left the store. Over the next few hours, I thought about my interaction with the employee. While I planted seeds and plants in my garden, I uprooted old beliefs, and started to fertilize my mind to new ideas.
I was embarrassed by my behavior. It is always an eye-opening experience to learn something about yourself, sometimes good and other times…not as much. My actions were founded on my instincts and history. I jumped to a conclusion based on visual cues, and these were not accurate. She knew “who she was” and my haste did not honor that. It would be easy to justify the situation and give myself a “get out of jail free card,” but that does not foster learning, change, and respect.
Instead, I chose to look in the “virtual mirror” to consider:
• Where else do I jump to the wrong conclusion?
• What other unconscious bias is running in my life?
• What impact does this bias have on my relationship, business, life, etc.?
• How can I be more respectful?
Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair. Bias that is acted upon may lead to prejudice and become bullying or violence.
We all have unconscious bias, and this typically happens outside our conscious awareness!
Biases can be based on ethnicity, gender, physical disability, weight, sexual orientation, religion, and various other characteristics. This bias is typically a learned stereotype that is automatic and mostly unintentional. Unconscious bias impacts our behavior, and how we interact with the people around us. Bias causes us to make quick decisions based on history.
My mom was a Chicago Cubs fan. She lived to almost 100 years old, and the only time she got in trouble as a kid was when she cut class to go to Wrigley Field to see a game. She got caught, and I heard the story many times during my youth. Somewhere along the story telling, I developed loyalty to the team. If you are a Chicago White Sox follower, I may have an opinion! I have witnessed this ballpark rivalry as harmless banter or opinionated bullying, depending on your “north side or south side” roots.
Leaders have asked, “How do I foster a more open approach within the team. Where do I start?”
The first step is to identify your unconscious bias. Notice the “first thoughts” that come into your mind when you experience a person or situation that is new or different. These thoughts may indicate beliefs that you bring into conscious action and practice. Once you know, and are willing to admit these biases to yourself, consider how these impact your decisions, leadership style, brand, and company. From a human resource perspective, the results of bias may be seen in recruiting new talent, career progression, performance management, compensation, and consistency in dealing with employee relations issues. When you take a close look at the processes used and decisions made in your business, you can determine if it is time to till the soil, and plant new seeds for a different outcome.
As a business leader, it is important to communicate to your employees that we all have our own beliefs and bias, but in the workplace, behavior must align with company values. Conversations and training regarding this topic are important as they help ensure open communication to foster respect and dignity in the workplace.
The interaction at the garden center provided an opportunity for me to realize and explore my unconscious bias. I planted a garden to feed my body, little did I know the process would feed my mind, and impact how I behave in the future.
“The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition, and not on our circumstances. We carry the seeds of one or the other with us in our minds, wherever we go.” — Martha Washington