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Sometimes you are presented with an “aha” moment when your view of life and yourself is completely shifted. It can happen during a quiet walk in the woods or it can be spurred on by something someone says. This happened to me last week while listening to HBS Professor Tsedal Neeley’s interview with Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck. In this interview, Ken shared his concern that his children are “growing up in a country which pretends not to be racist. . . I would ask people to recognize that even the people who say they're not racist, it's sort of humorous to me when [those] people say to me, ‘I don't see color. I don't even notice that you're a Black man.’ Every minute of my life, I realize I'm a Black man. How they don't realize it is beyond me.”

“Every minute of my life, I realize I'm a Black man. How they don't realize it is beyond me.” - Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck

As a white woman, it was as if he was speaking directly to me. Faced with racial injustice today I would like to believe that I’m a color-blind ally, empathetic to the issues black women and men face. But the truth is, I live in a suburb of Boston with very little diversity, and while my husband is Cuban, he looks white, as do my children.

I am not alone. Research by Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist, found that while 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10-15% of people are actually so. Dr. Eurich defines Internal self-awareness as “how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.”

The interview with Ken Frazier made me ask myself, how self-aware am I? While I believe that my values are consistent with racial equity, am I living to that standard? Given that 85-90% of people aren’t self-aware, it is likely that I am not. So while my values may be directing me to say “I don’t see color,” do I think or behave differently around people of color and, most importantly, what is my impact on them?

Self-awareness is the most important determinant of how one treats others. Daniel Goleman and the Korn Ferry Hay Group found that leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness create negative climates 78% of the time.

However, self-awareness is not enough if we harbor unconscious biases, which we all do. Dr. Eurich states “Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.”

So much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.” - Dr. Tascha Eurich

To create change, we need to address our unconscious bias. This is a challenge as it is a result of a building block of biases, developed over a lifetime. From an early age, children are exposed to racial prejudice. They associate with people just like them (including race, socioeconomic, education, and gender), leading to further bias against other non-like individuals. And this only aggravates the issue. This Affinity Bias leads to Confirmation Bias (where we only seek out information that supports our previously conceived ideas), Labeling Bias or Halo effect (where we make opinions based on someone’s external appearance), and Selective Attention Bias (where we ignore some things and pay more attention to certain stimuli). We aren’t even aware of other options because we are only exposed to the ones we choose to see.


Here is one approach to addressing your unconscious bias in 10 (not so easy) steps:

1. Understand why unconscious bias is important to address.

Unconscious bias can lead to detrimental effects on you personally, your company, and the people impacted.

For example, if your goal is to increase diversity in your company (see my blog on the benefits of diversity in the workplace), it is often hard to achieve that with your current practices. Research shows that “white interviewers sat farther away from Black applicants than from white applicants, made more speech errors and ended the interviews 25 percent sooner.” Such discrimination is harmful and has been shown to diminish the performance of anyone treated that way.

2. Be curious and brave enough to admit that you may have a bias.

While this may seem like a simple step, many people have a difficult time facing what Carl Jung calls their “shadow” – the dark side of their personality that is repressed. Unfortunately denying your bias, won’t make it disappear.

It is important to minimize your feelings of guilt or blame as this will impede your efforts to grow. Recognize that everyone has biases, and only by acknowledging their existence will you be able to live an integrated life aligned with your values versus being a servant to your habitual reactions.

3. Identify and name those biases.

Take an implicit bias test. Project Implicit offers a Racial Bias Test in addition to tests for other implicit biases. Additionally, a trained coach can help provide you with the tools and support to surface the invisible.

Labeling the bias will make it real, make it transparent, and give you more control over it. Or borrowing a phrase from Dr. Dan Siegel on emotional regulation: "Name it to Tame it."

4. Now that you know you have bias, spend time exploring it.

Having the data is similar to a feedback review. You become aware of what you need to work on and can then take the appropriate steps to impact your actions.

At this point, you can begin to use many of the tools to build self-awareness.

  • Define your core values. How is your bias stepping on those values? How are you honoring your values today?

  • Look to the future and past. Define your personal vision for your ideal self. And then write down your personal narrative. What are the stories that you hold onto from your past? How can you rewrite them to achieve your desired future?

  • Keep a journal. I keep my journal in the drawer underneath my coffee machine. When I go to have my cup of coffee I reach for my journal at the same time (and trust me, I will always drink my coffee). Just a few minutes a day can help build your self-awareness.

  • Tune in to your sensory experience (called interoception). Notice what is happening in your own body (e.g., changes in breathing, heart rate, muscle tension). This is a signal for you. What occurs before the experience, the trigger, and what is your body telling you? The more specific you can be, the better. For example, “I felt tightness in my jaw after hearing Martha speak up at the meeting and then I reacted with a sneer”. When you can recognize in-the-moment discomfort, you grow your capacity to make other choices on how to react.

  • Observe yourself from a distance and with curiosity. Imagine that you are viewing yourself from above, and in a non-defensive away, reflect on your beliefs, thoughts, and actions.

  • Spend time every day doing nothing. Take a walk in the woods, sit quietly with your dog, and let your mind wander.

  • Observe others. Where are you similar/different? What is your reaction to them (see sensory experience above)?

5. Retrain your brain with daily mindfulness practices.

Our unconscious mind processes 11 million pieces of information per second vs the 40 pieces in your conscious mind, according to Dr. Timothy Wilson. Our intuitive, automatic decision making is based on years of experience and our brain creates shortcuts and draws conclusions that result in implicit bias.

Practicing mindfulness can help you slow down and become aware of when you are making those biased assumptions. It will also allow you to create a pause between the stimulus and an ingrained reaction (the automatic-stereotype response) to choose a more thoughtful response.

6. Expose yourself to new ideas and perspectives.

You can also retrain your brain by expanding your circle to incorporate different perspectives.

  • Conduct a Network Analysis to evaluate your current network and see if it is diverse enough.

  • Encourage discussions with dissimilar others to openly exchange ideas.

  • Finally, stand in other’s shoes, and try on their perspectives.

7. Listen to lead.

Compassionate leaders listen more than they speak. Active listening requires you to pay attention, creating the time and space for others to speak. It also requires you to withhold judgment and keep an open mind. As a listener and a leader, you need to be open to new ideas, new perspectives, and new possibilities. Even when you have strong views, you need to suspend judgment, hold your criticism, and avoid arguing or selling your point right away.

8. Educate yourself.

Expanding your knowledge could be achieved by organizing unconscious bias training for your organization. It can also be accomplished by reading books, listening to podcasts, and attending cultural events. By exposing yourself to new truths and witnessing other’s personal experiences you can begin to break the stereotypes you hold.

Many organizations have started to post resource lists. Here are two I suggest: Harvard Business Review and NPR.

9. Seek and provide feedback.

Encourage feedback from others on your behavior and share (in a supportive way) with others when you see acts of bias. Good intentions may not be enough. Sometimes the impact of words (or actions) can be offensive and it is important for you (or others) to see concrete examples in order to change. Be aware that your non-verbal communication (e.g., facial expressions, body language) may be speaking volumes.

10. And finally, take a lesson from Ken Frazier: Act!

“It's really important that we not just engage in platitudes and nice statements. It's time to take action … at the end of the day, if you're complacent with the status quo, you're complicit in the racism that the status quo hides.” - Ken Frazier

Here are some ways you can take action:

  • If you work with an organization, promote the establishment of benchmarks for hiring, compensation, and promotion of employees. If you don’t find the right people, expand your search and look in a different pond.

  • Train others to reflect on their own attitudes and recognize/reward best practices for promoting diversity.

  • Mentor and develop others to promote diversity and reduce unconscious bias. Ken Frazier attributed his success to Roy Vagelos and Bill Coleman, who took him under their wings. Most mentoring programs are built on matching similar people (and there is some value for doing so). However, in order to promote equality and break down negative stereotypes, you need to promote positive ongoing interactions with people from different races, ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual identities, etc.

  • Identify opportunities (either at the local, state, or national level) that align with your purpose and values to make a difference. For example, my son and I have started writing postcards to encourage people who have been removed from the voter files to contact their local voter registration offices.

To be an ally is not a noun, it is a verb.

How are you going to act today?

Graphic by Makyzz / Freepik

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