Changing Implict Bias - Wait, I'm not a racist.

Recently I was in South Africa for about three weeks. We had a team of about 25 people with our InSite leadership program. When we first started InSite in 2010, implicit bias wasn’t even a thing I knew about, never mind thinking I needed to change it. Here I am 8 years later and it’s become one of the topics our team speaks about quite a bit.

Perhaps you’ve come late to the party so let me give you a quick rundown of what is meant by “implicit bias”. I’ll refer to you a Forbes magazine article that articulates it quite well.

It means that all of us -- even the most seemingly aware, educated or socially conscious business people -- still have biases. We have a biological preference for those we see as “like” us. "Like" can have many definitions beyond the surface gender or race implications. Maybe we like those who grew up in the same part of the country or world that we did. Maybe we like those who attended university where we did or root for the same sports teams. Or maybe it's people that think just the way we do. However this “like” is defined, it can be dangerous in a hiring setting. Leaders who hire only in their own image are setting themselves, their teams and the company up for failure.

There are many types of bias in play. Some are more clear than others. We define implicit bias as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” The keyword here is "unconscious."

We do not set out to discriminate, make others feel “less than” or make poor decisions. Our brain is wired for speed, for efficiency and to make associations of known with known. We like to be efficient, and our brains help us. Again: If you have a brain, you are biased.

Current research on implicit bias, as we shared with the Harvard class, offers encouraging news. Individual biases -- the patterns people inevitably develop in their brains to organize information -- can be changed by employing choice point or pattern interrupt concepts, increasingly referred to as “debiasing.” (

So, changing these patterns or ‘debiasing’ is possible. It requires an awareness of what your personal bias’s are and then making an effort to disrupt the patterns. One of the ways I look for my bias’s is to pay attention to how I speak about others. When I first started Stichting Reckoning, a non-profit, our work focused on people living in more marginalized communities in Amsterdam and abroad. We spent hours trying to figure out how to speak and write about the communities we were working alongside. This is when I first noticed how I personally thought about people living in these circumstances. Did I think they were poor? Uneducated? Close-minded? Fearful? Lonely? What were my perceptions and what were they based on?

Working in South Africa uncovered more layers of bias and challenged me to question the thoughts and feelings I had. What was the reality of the people living here and who am I to think I can or should tell them what I think they should do?

So, questions to ask yourself:  How do I refer to other people? How do I describe where they live or what they do? What assumptions do I make about others? How open am I to learning about others that seem so different from me?

It’s in these questions that I’ve learned to face my own implicit bias and begin to ‘debias’ how I view others. This practice has opened up my circle of friends, given me a deeper sense of connection with others, and grounded me in how to better love and care for others. I’ve got a long way to go, but acknowledging that these bias’s are present frees me to change them.

It is true what Mark Twain said,
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."
-Mark Twain

And sometimes traveling can be as short as your neighbors house.