Unconscious Bias: Not Just An Adult Problem

davidlivermore | February 20th, 2018 No Comments

Guest Post By Dr. Sandra Upton

Recently, there was an incident at a high school in my own hometown where a group of students found makeup in the back of a classroom that had been left previously in the day by another student. One student, who happened to be Caucasian, used that makeup to paint his face black. Someone took pictures and you can probably guess what happened next. They were posted on social media and instantly went viral, creating a firestorm of offense and criticism from other students and the community at large, particularly the African American community.

Some might say, “I don’t get it, what’s the big deal?” Well, if you understand a bit about U.S. race relations, wearing “blackface” was makeup that was used to portray very negative racial stereotypes towards African Americans in the 19th Century. The remnants of what it symbolizes are alive and well, making it just asif not moresensitive of an issue today as it was back then. Worse yet, these remnants can show up in the form of unconscious biases, particularly among our youth in K-12 (primary and secondary) schools. Students’ unconscious biases are not limited to race. They can include gender, socioeconomic status, weight, sexual orientation, religion, etc., all of which can significantly undermine a school’s efforts to create an inclusive environment where students thrive, regardless of their backgrounds.

What is Unconscious Bias and Where does it come From?

Unconscious bias can be described as unintended subtle and subconscious thoughts that happen to all of usand all of the time. Mahzarin Banaji, author of the book Blind Spots, describes them as ingrained habits or “mindbugs” of thought that lead to error in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions.

Banaji’s research reveals unconscious bias in children as soon as they have the verbal skills to be tested for it, which is around age four. Moreover, unconscious bias turns out to be roughly the same for pre-schoolers as for a senior citizen. This is consistent for children around the globe. The source of these biases is influenced most by the socialization that occurs at home, in school, and through the media. Unless there is intentionality in managing biases, they follow children throughout their primary and secondary education resulting in negative judgments, stereotypes, and actions towards people from different backgrounds. And as a result, kids put black makeup on their faces thinking it’s innocent while in fact it stems from implicit biases they have about people who look different from them.

So how can schools address unconscious bias? And how do we do so in culturally intelligent ways? Below are a few ideas. Let’s consider them at two levelsschool focused and student focused strategies.

School Focused Strategies

  • Recruit Culturally Intelligent Teachers and Staff 

Review your hiring and onboarding practices. Be intentional about hiring a diverse team of teachers and staff. Recruiting a school staff comprised of different backgrounds creates an opportunity for your diverse student population to see people on staff and in leadership who look like them.  But diversity staffing is not enough. Make sure that you hire people who share your value for diversity and inclusion, even if they are among the dominant culture. Everyone on staff needs cultural intelligence.

  • Provide Unconscious Bias Training for Teachers and Staff

Part of the reason students are able to act on their biases is because teachers and staff lack the awareness and skills to manage such challenges. Providing research-based unconscious bias training is a powerful strategy for exposing potential biases that faculty and staff might have, as well as equipping them to effectively deal with students who may demonstrate biases towards others. Use professional development time to provide the training so teachers and staff don’t feel like it’s one more thing being added to an already full plate. Be sure teachers from every subject matter are on board. Unconscious bias shows up in math, science, and PE as much as in the social sciences.

  • Engage Parents and Families

Children are not born biased. They develop biased thoughts and assumptions through what they are taught and exposed to. Invite families to discussions or trainings on unconscious bias and cultural intelligence. Help them recognize the value of such learning and development opportunities for both them as parents, as well as their children. Provide them with tools and resources to navigate difficult discussions at home. Educate them on why having culturally intelligent children will prepare them for success in the global and multicultural world that they will eventually be working in as adults. A parent or family in the U.S. needs to help their children understand that cultural demographics have shifted. Today, students of color are now the majority in U.S. public schools. Those currently in the minority population will become the majority within the next 30 years. A parent or family in Australia might remind their children that nearly 40% of students attending Australian universities were born oversees. Many of these students are from places such as India and China. Their children will be attending college and ultimately working alongside these students.

Don’t wait to engage families after an incident has happened. Be proactive. And when a situation happens, everyone should be clear and feel confident that it will be handled in a way that supports the school’s already demonstrated commitment to creating an inclusively excellent environment for all students.

Student Focused Strategies

  • Customize Classroom Instruction

Make sure the curriculum and other classroom resources reflect a wide range of cultures and perspectives that represent your student population and beyond. Use positive images and materials that intentionally counter stereotypical assumptions about certain cultural groups. Incorporate instruction about bias. Use music, art, and other creative mediums to expose the cultural values and contributions of different cultural groups.

  • Facilitate Cross-Cultural Interactions

Facilitate cross-cultural interactions between in-groups. Dr. Beverly Tatum’s classic book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?” in part reflects our preference for sticking with our in-group, but it also symbolizes the segregation that still happens in many U.S. schools. Underrepresented populations, which could also include other forms of diversity such as students with learning or physical disabilities, do not feel included or a valuable part of the school community. Create heterogeneous learning groups to include students from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Perspective taking has been shown to reduce unconscious bias. Challenge students to reflect on situations and conflicts from another person’s point of view. For example, how do they process negative images they see about certain cultural groups in the media? Why is the #MeToo movement from around the globe such a big deal? Eventually, move students towards developing their cultural intelligence.

  • Build in Accountability

Ignorance is not bliss. Everyone must play an active part in learning to become more culturally intelligent when interacting across cultures. As the saying goes, “when you know better, you do better.” Students, and anyone who is part of the school community, must understand that biased words and actions which negatively impact others are unacceptable and will have disciplinary consequences. These expectations should be communicated in a proactive and explicit way, not simply after an incident occurs. All students should clearly understand that before they “choose” to act on their biases and stereotypes, they will be held accountable and there will be consequences.

In summary, let’s not wait for our children to become full grown adults before we begin to tackle unconscious bias and its consequences. Instead, if we are going to honor our desire to develop global citizens and to be diverse, inclusive schools, we have a responsibility to ensure that unconscious bias and its unhealthy effects are eradicated from our educational institutions.

To learn more about our unconscious bias training programs, check out our Certification opportunities. Additionally, to learn about managing bias on the college campus, join our upcoming complimentary unconscious bias webinar.

Is 2017 Done Yet? Brace yourself…there’s more to come!

davidlivermore | December 14th, 2017 No Comments

What a year! From Brexit battles and alt right groups to countless women (and men!) saying #MeToo, not to mention an alarming number of terrorist attacks in mosques, churches, cafes and rock concerts…it’s been quite a year. Even for an eternal optimist like me, there are days when it’s hard to remain hopeful. Even so, our team at the Cultural Intelligence Center has never been more committed to our work of building bridges across cultural divides than we are now.

I believe we’re in the midst of a massive global disruption. More people than ever before are working, studying, and living next to people who come from vastly different backgrounds than they do. This is true across the U.S., Canada, and Europe—but it’s also occurring throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and almost everywhere else. I’m confident that the extremists, haters, and abusers are not the majority. But the fear people feel about seeing their communities, work places, and worship gatherings change so dramatically creates a lot of anxiety. A few trite clichés about everyone getting along and celebrating diversity are not going to solve this. But, I’d like to suggest that those of us working together to develop cultural intelligence are uniquely positioned to help others navigate the complexities of today’s world.

Our team at the Cultural Intelligence Center recently pushed “pause” and looked back at some of the highlights from this past year. Here are just a few:

  • Figuring out how to implement unconscious bias and CQ solutions in large multinationals like StarbucksGoldman SachsiRobotAmway, and Fiat Chrysler, to working alongside county governments, small consulting firms, and charitable organizations in a variety of places across the globe. We’ve delivered over 100 workshops on cultural intelligence and unconscious bias.
  • Supporting hundreds of universities and high schools across the globe in assessing and equipping their students to develop the skills to live and work in today’s diverse, multicultural world. In some cases, that means working with an individual class or study abroad group; in other cases, it means working with the administration to conduct a complete audit of their strategy for building CQ and creating an inclusive environment. In cases like the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan, it means every incoming student was introduced to CQ as a part of the school’s commitment to “cultural intelligence” as one of its core values. More than 83,000 individuals from 164 countries have taken the CQ Assessment.
  • We’ve had the delight to work with pharmaceutical companies, research institutes, and hospitals like Spectrum Health in Michigan and Sidra Medicine in Qatar to integrate cultural intelligence as a critical part of providing world class care to families and patients from a diversity of backgrounds.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense made it possible for us to launch a military-specific version of the CQ assessment. And we’ve been privileged to work with special operation groups and military leaders in a variety of contexts across the world.
  • 243 people went through our public certification programs so that they can build cultural intelligence and unconscious bias training and coaching into their work. Additionally, 11 organizations sponsored in-house certifications to equip an internal cadre of facilitators to integrate CQ.
  • Meanwhile, we opened a new office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, added 10 new staff and 14 new associate trainers.

We have big dreams for the next year and even bigger dreams for the next 5 years. This isn’t about us. It’s about partnering with likeminded researchers, practitioners, and organizations to respond to the tribalism or our age and to navigate through the social disruption going on domestically and internationally.

Thank you to the thousands of individuals and organizations that are committed to this work with us. We look forward to introducing you to a number of new products and services in the new year but for now, we wish you the happiest of new year’s! There are more challenges on the horizon but together, we can do this!

What’s the #1 Conflict on Diverse Teams?

davidlivermore | November 16th, 2017 No Comments

Eighty percent of team conflicts can be attributed to unclear goals (Tichy). That’s true across any team but the potential for misalignment goes up exponentially on diverse teams. In fact, most intercultural challenges begin with clashing expectations. What one group views as honest and straightforward, another views as disingenuous and myopic. What an individual from one culture sees as “efficient,” another sees as “shortsighted.” The same can be said about clashing expectations around appropriate ways to express respect, sincerity, responsibility, and more.

Consider how these clashing expectations influence your diverse team:

Who’s in Charge?

Who calls the shots, and where does the responsibility ultimately lie? Clashing expectations around how a leader should lead and what leadership entails is often the first point of confusion. The operating assumption across most Western leadership models is “leaders are made, not born.” Leadership is not inherited by simply putting in your time or receiving a title—you become a leader because you’ve produced results and taken responsibility.

Take Facebook for example, arguably the poster child of Western, Millennial-led corporate culture. Facebook describes itself as anti-hierarchical and title-agnostic. Becoming a manager at Facebook is a lateral move because Zuckerberg wants leaders who are driven by the mission of the company, not power or title.

For most of the world, leadership takes a far more command and control approach. There are clear lines between leaders and followers and the most senior leader in the room should have the final say.

Dr. Becky Heino, one of our certified facilitators at Columbia University, tells the story of being asked by a group of Chinese executives why President Obama wasn’t sitting at the head of the table during a pinnacle moment of his presidency—the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

In a hierarchical culture, the leader should be at the head of the table, even if others have more expertise on the situation at hand. This isn’t necessarily an ego trip on the part of the senior leader. The respect offered a leader sends a message about the values and respect of everyone on the team.

What’s the Purpose of a Meeting?

Or, how about all the time teams spend in meetings, virtual and face-to-face. What’s the purpose of a meeting? Is it to share updates and exchange information, make a decision, develop trust? Even homogeneous teams may have clashing expectations surrounding the purpose of a meeting. But culture socializes us to have some default expectations for why and how to conduct a meeting.

Last week, an African American leader told me his black staff members recently asked him whether an upcoming meeting was a place where they were going to “go there”. He instantly knew what they were asking. Was this a meeting to directly address some underlying conflict on the team, or would it simply be a diplomatic discussion that ignored the friction and just moved forward with the task at hand?

In Japan, a meeting is usually meant to publicly confirm decisions made in smaller groups. The participants explore alternatives privately before the meeting to save face by avoiding conflict publicly.

Meetings in many Mexican organizations are as much meant to build relationships and trust as they are to cover an agenda. Once you trust someone, decision-making is relatively easy and fast.

In most U.S. contexts, a meeting is meant to gather information and input from the participants. Individuals are expected to come prepared to compare and constructively analyze the alternatives.

If you’re participating in a meeting in a Dutch organization, be prepared for the possibility of harsh critique. From the Dutch way of thinking, there’s little need to spend time talking about what’s good. A meeting is meant to identify all the weaknesses and criticisms of a particular approach or plan.

These are generalizations, but the point is—something as simple as “why meet” has a whole set of expectations attached to it, most of which are usually unspoken and quite possibly unconscious.

Who Makes the Decision?

Team conflicts often come to a height in the midst of decision-making. The cultural norms associated with many groups’ decision-making styles are often counter-intuitive.

An outsider may come into the flat, egalitarian culture at Facebook and assume that decision-making will be highly collaborative and consensual. But that’s not the case at all. Decision-making in egalitarian contexts is usually vested in the individual closest to the situation at hand to allow for quick, flexible decisions. In fact, despite an inordinate emphasis on teamwork and collaboration across organizations like Facebook, “consensus” is usually avoided at all costs, lest it lead to “paralysis by analysis”. A team leader in this kind of organization confers with the team before making the decision but then makes the final determination independently, with people knowing not everyone will get their way.

In contrast, the norm for teams in hierarchical cultures is that a lot of people are involved in the decision-making process. One might expect that hierarchical cultures would be places where the senior leader just makes the decision. But that’s not usually the case. Reaching agreement usually takes a long time and involves many individuals; even once the decision is made, it often continues to evolve as new information comes into view.

Other clashing expectations I consistently observe include different assumptions about whether small talk and informal conversation are a waste of time or an important part of building trust. Or, what about the level of details and analysis that are needed? Does presenting a highly detailed analysis demonstrate that you can’t see the big picture, or prove that you’ve done the necessary due diligence to get to the big picture?

Aligning Expectations

Culturally intelligent leadership is so much more than being cultural sensitive or knowing the do’s and don’ts of specific cultures. At the crux of culturally intelligent leadership is aligning team members’ expectations so that the diverse perspectives can be used to develop more innovative solutions.

Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Have an explicit discussion about expectations

Any team would be well served by taking time to clarify objectives upfront but this is all the more important on diverse teams. Stating an outcome like, “to reach a decision on which vendor to use” is probably adequate on a homogeneous team but much more deliberation is needed for an outcome like that on a diverse team (e.g. what critieria are being used to reach a decision, how will the decision be made, by whom, how binding is the decision, etc.)

  • Test understanding

Check in with each team member to get their understanding of the stated outcome and expectations. Many personalities and face-saving cultures are not going to say, “I don’t get it.” They may even nod that they understand or are in agreement. But you need to ask each individual to paraphrase their understanding of the intended outcome or expectation. Or, ask how they might communicate the outcome to others on their teams—not as a way to put them on the spot, but instead to learn from the different perspectives surrounding the same outcome.

  • Debate Expectations

In order to benefit from the diverse insights and expectations on your team, don’t move too quickly to a “shared” expectation. Encourage debate and deliberation about the ideal outcome and the most effective way to get there. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of Business says, “Argue as if you’re right. Listen as if you’re wrong.” I love that. Encourage each team member to confidently share their perspective with conviction. And then promote active listening to each other.

  • Practice perspective-taking

A diverse team creates a built-in opportunity for perspective-taking, one of the critical characteristics of culturally intelligent teams. I’ve written previously about how diverse teams can use Jeff Bezos’ practice of using an empty chair at meetings to visually remind the team to take on the perspective of diverse customers or constituents. Use your debate about expectations to help you see how others see this rather than just waiting to defend your position.

  • Remember that in stress, people will resort to default expectations.

Stress and time pressure are when we’re most susceptible to unconscious bias and frustration. The reason clashing expectations create so much conflict on a team is because it requires more time and effort to get something done and most teams are already stretched for time. So be particularly on guard for how you and others on a team are functioning under high-stress.

As I reflect on my own life and work, I think clashing expectations are the driving source of conflict in most any relationship—business partnerships, friendship, family, and marriage. Some deliberate conversation, reflection, and effort to address our otherwise unspoken expectations goes a long way toward gaining the benefits that come from working and living with people who see the world differently from how we do.

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