Unconscious Bias: How to Knock Down the Walls

 In Career Development

She smiles a lot. 

(Happy people aren’t serious people.)

She’s so friendly. 

(She’s too nice to be a counterterrorism expert. She probably doesn’t know very much.) 

She’s easy to talk to. 

(She must not be particularly driven or determined. She’s not leadership material or someone on the cutting edge of anything. Nice people don’t rise to the top, they support others.)

Terrorist: She’s young, female, American.

(Oh, this is going to be fun! I can pull the wool over her eyes and she’ll never know that I’m lying or manipulating the situation.)

I’m used to the assumptions. I’ve dealt with them my entire life. It is hard for people to merge the two seemingly different versions of me: an outgoing and kind person who cares very much about others–with the counterterrorism and Middle East expert. Most human beings are conditioned to associate a leader with someone who wields power in a more forceful manner. Those with sunny dispositions are often relegated to the second tier or the back row. 

This cognitive dissonance is a product of an unconscious bias that sets our expectations of people’s strengths, weaknesses, personality and interests. Our assumptions are based on a lifetime’s worth of input, so this happens without our cognizance. We are not aware that this process is occurring. 

When the CIA hired me in 2002, the human resources department had a clear preference (conscious bias) to funnel women into one particular position (spending more time behind a computer managing intelligence collection) and men into another position (spending more time out of the office/in the field handling and recruiting sources). This policy completely ignored strengths or experience. I found this odd and couldn’t understand how several of my colleagues could do a better job handling sources when they’d never been to the Middle East and didn’t know the difference between Sunni, Shi’a, Christian and Kurd in Iraq. 

Turns out they weren’t better or more capable than me, but it took me (and the CIA) years to figure out that they had this amazing, untapped resource in many of the females they’d hired. We can—and should—be doing a better job in the national security sector hiring people who have the knowledge, experience, linguistic and cultural skills required to do intelligence well.

In the workplace, subconscious bias affects internal processes such as hiring, promotions, leadership development, training decisions, and project management. In terms of operations, subconscious biasaffects our marketing and sales strategies, product design, prioritization of projects, and so much more. 

That is why it is critical to understand our proclivities to prejudge people based on appearance. By simply understanding the phenomenon, we already begin to thwart it.

How does this affect your business?

Bottom Line: You might be skipping over the most insightful and dependable employees who have the requisite strengths for wild operational success. You may be focused on others who are less talented because they are louder, more forceful in their interactions, or you simply feel more comfortable with them. Consider the possibility that you might be unwittingly passing over your best employees, leaders, audiences, clients, or buyers. 

What can we do about it?

The first step is acknowledging that we can do a better job.

The next step is endeavoring to dig deeper and get to know others better. Ask more questions. Try to determine whether unconscious bias has affected the way you’ve done business and identify one way to start rectifying that. 

As my girlfriend who is often on the receiving end of conscious and unconscious bias suggested, we shouldn’t write others off but, “Give others a chance to amaze you!”

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Showing 2 comments
  • Sandy Thompsen

    LOVE this! I think this speaks to so many people (like me) who have tried to get into jobs or positions that were not made available because of what they thought I was capable of or didn’t fit the profile of what they wanted. So unfair. But for every set-back, there is a lesson and an opportunity to find my way to where I see myself. Thank you so much for telling your story in “Breaking Cover”. It’s so inspirational and I recommend everyone to read it….and be inspired as well! 😁

  • Ze'Shieca Carter

    Spot on!

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