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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Sharon Drew Morgen May 15th, 2023