Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Countering Bias

Back in my television days, one of my news directors (wish I could remember for sure which one, but I'm betting it was Mack Berry) told me that the notion of being an unbiased reporter is pure fantasy. He always claimed that despite what students are told in journalism classes (apparently, anyway - my only classroom was the newsroom), it's simply not possible to report without any bias and it wasn't just that he was predicting the current views on journalism. Mack simply believed it was a losing battle to try to completely rid oneself of bias - that it is far more effective to recognize where we are prejudiced and do our best to consciously compensate for that.

Bias shows up in a variety of ways, including which ideas we will consider as well as how we react to and treat other people. Presumably it is obvious that prejudice can adversely impact our workplace relationships and business decisions as well as our personal lives. What isn't obvious is that bias itself isn't always obvious, even to ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes we aren't even aware of such attitudes, making them very difficult to root out. It's tough enough to be honest with ourselves about what biases - or implicit attitudes, as they're called - we hold and even tougher when we don't even know they're there.

One solution is to check our biases with a tool developed by a team of academic researchers called the Implicit Association Test. Personally, I always find such things totally fascinating, even when what I learn can be somewhat disturbing at times. It takes some courage and willingness to be introspective and, in my book anyway, is worth it.

For instance, as much as I'd like to say that I am free of any racial bias, it turns out that this is not entirely true. Knowing this, however, means that I can actively work to ensure that such implicit attitudes don't have undue control over my perceptions and behavior. I'm considerably more gratified to learn that I do not appear to have any particular automatic preference for Microsoft or Open Source software, which is exactly as I'd prefer, given that my primary goal is to assess technology situations and appropriate solutions on their actual merits alone and without bias.

On a more amusing note, I'm not at all surprised to learn that I hold no particular associations between gender and either career or family (meaning I am just as likely to associate women with career and men with family as the other way around) and I have a rather contrary moderate preference for associating women with science and men with liberal arts. Yeah, that explains a few things...

I know my parents did a lot to overcome any natural or socialized tendencies I might otherwise have developed in terms of bias. One bias I know I hold and am glad for is a general assumption on my part that things are good rather than a problem. It's helped me in so many ways and I'm glad it's a preferential perspective that my parents passed along.

Having recently seen the movie Paper Clips, I really get that what the kids in Whitwell, Tennessee, have are amazing teachers. The teachers themselves apparently have incredible compassion and curiosity that is just as amazing and even more powerful in that they are also paired with a trust that by following that curiosity with compassion, they will find a meaningful path.

If you haven't seen it, I urge you to. The teachers started with a seemingly simple goal of helping their students understand prejudice, what causes it and the pain that it can cause. I realize that's a serious understatement given that fighting prejudice is itself not exactly a simple goal. And yet the truth is that they accomplished so very much more than they ever imagined, given where they thought they were going with all this when they started on that path.

Life is like that too for the rest of us if we can only keep bias from blinding us to the greater realm of possibilities before us. I realize that's a bit too rosy an outlook for a lot of the cynics I tend to hang out with but there you are. I keep seeing stories like this one and it reminds me not only of the power of human compassion but also that so much is possible when we just allow ourselves to take that first step and let curiosity guide the way rather than the preconceived ideas that tend to show up instead. I know that had Mack met these teachers and seen how they set their biases aside so that they could listen to their students, he'd have been very proud.

Send your thoughts on how you deal with your own biases to me at as well as any stories you have about what's happened as a result. I'm curious.

As for me, paperclips have taken on a whole new realm of meaning, both in terms of fighting prejudice and also in terms making really big things happen.

Where does curiosity lead you?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.