Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Tips to Battle Unconscious Bias

Dear David,

Five months ago, I started a job at an all-girls private, Catholic, school. I work as a technician and accepted the job because it combines my interest in instructional education and computer hardware and software troubleshooting. It also pays well above what I’ve earned in the past.

I’m a woman, and my teammates are all men. I’m feeling uncomfortable, but not because of the guy-to-girl ratio (4:1). It’s because I feel like all of my actions are being scrutinized under a microscope. I understand that this is a high-demand field. I’ve worked in schools before, but never as part of a team. So I’ve been introduced to things like team meetings and monthly feedback reports.

Lately, whenever I get feedback, I feel like my teammates are “fishing” for things I’ve done wrong. For example, the latest feedback was about what the expression on my face conveys. Help?

Feeling Judged

Dear Judged,

Thanks for an interesting question. It combines a thought-provoking mix of issues: succeeding as a new employee, responding to feedback, and dealing with unconscious bias. I’ll suggest a few approaches.

Succeeding as a New Employee. Congratulations on your new job. It’s also a great opportunity for laying the grassroots of a successful career. Here is my advice:

Create your Personal Brand. Your brand is your reputation—the image you project. You need to take charge to make it the right brand. Our research for Change Anything uncovered three elements that are essential to your brand:

  • You know your stuff. In your case, this means that you are seen as a master of the different technologies you support. If you aren’t already a master, then put in the time and effort it takes to quickly rise to the challenge.
  • You work on the right stuff. This means that you focus on high-priority, mission-critical tasks, rather than staying in your comfort zone.
  • You have a reputation for being helpful. People need to see you as generous with your time and expertise.

Build Relationships. Reach out to build relationships beyond your immediate team. Schedule two to three appointments per week with your customers—teachers and administrators—across the school. Ask them about their priorities related to the technology services your team provides. Listen for improvements they’d like to see, and take notes. Try to find at least one concrete action you can take to respond to their suggestions.

At the same time, work to build stronger relationships within your team. This is where you need to build your reputation for being helpful. Volunteer for the tough jobs, pitch in when you see a teammate putting in extra time or effort, and ask others how you can help.

Get a Mentor. Find a person who is willing to both challenge you and advocate for you. This could be a teacher or administrator, or it could be your manager. The essential ingredients in the relationship are safety and trust. You need someone who can help you navigate the political complexities of your new job.

Responding to Feedback.
You are getting a lot more feedback than you’re used to, and it feels as if people are using a microscope to search for negative things to say. How should you deal with their criticisms? Here are a few suggestions.

Avoid Defending. It’s hard not to defend, especially when criticisms seem picky, unfair, or inaccurate. But do your best to become curious, instead of defensive. Respond with, “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Can you give me an example, so I can understand it better?”

Seek Clarity. Often, when feedback feels unfair, the real problem is that it’s vague. A person says, “You’re not very customer-focused,” when what they mean is, “After yesterday’s service call, you didn’t check back to see if your solution solved all of their problems.” Getting down to specifics will take the heat out of the feedback, and will also make it easier to act on.

Go Public. Here is a secret: People will continue to send you feedback until they are sure you’ve gotten the message. So, once you’ve decided how to respond to a piece of feedback, make your plans public. Going public communicates that you’ve taken the feedback seriously, have made changes, and that the person who gave you the feedback can move on.

Dealing with Unconscious Bias. As a woman in a team of men, you stand out. You get noticed. And, because we humans have our assumptions, your successes may seem a bit surprising to some, and your failures may seem a bit confirming. In addition, you may find that the work environment has been optimized for its prior residents—all men. How should you deal with these kinds of bias?

We recently studied the damaging effects of bias and found that subtle biases like what you describe are pervasive and soul-destroying. I am sorry you find yourself in this kind of environment. Luckily, there are skills you can use to confront what is likely an unconscious bias. I’ll suggest three from our Crucial Conversations book and training.

Speak Up. Don’t just grin and bear it. When you experience an interaction that leaves you wondering—like feedback about what the expression on your face conveys—step out of the content and have a conversation about your concerns. “Can I talk about what we’re talking about? I’ve noticed a pattern. Sometimes you give me feedback that seems more personal than the feedback you give each other. For example, feedback about my clothes, my glasses, and now my expressions. As men, do you ever receive feedback from each other on these things?” The goal is to begin an open, honest, and respectful dialogue that builds understanding and respect.

Make it Safe. Avoid labeling or accusing others. Instead, assume that people have positive intentions unless proven otherwise. Achieving a better outcome for the future requires that we help others and ourselves feel safe while addressing uncomfortable issues. For example, you might begin with, “I don’t think you realize how that came across . . .”

State My Path. Skilled individuals are careful to describe their concerns absent the judgments and accusations the rest of us hold when we speak up. For example, replace, “What you said was sexist and abusive,” with, “Last Friday, you said, ‘That’s the last time I send a woman to do a man’s job.’” Describe what really just happened—no apologies, no self-repression, no accusations, and no indictments. Begin with the detailed facts, tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you, then invite others to a dialogue where you both can learn. For a recap of these skills, watch our latest Crucial Skills Live video below.

I know this is a lot to process, but that’s what you get when you ask a really good question! I hope you find a few nuggets in my response that will help.


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12 thoughts on “Tips to Battle Unconscious Bias”

  1. M.M.

    when people in power are scrutinizing you under a microscope, all you can do – is run…there is no cure with matter what you do, even if you are trillion times brilliant – will be turned into negative, which will eventually get your stress hormone – cortisol either too high or too low…and if it is too low – you can make a mistake, and it will damage your image, and if it is too high – it will affect your ability to sleep and might at the end affect the condition of your heart…the scrutinizing microscope – is a skillful career murderer trick in the work-place…

    1. davidmaxfield

      Thanks for your comment.
      I see a difference between intentional and unintentional bias. Intentional, purposeful bias needs to be addressed as a disciplinary matter. Document times, places, and circumstances. Use quotes of what was said. Compile this evidence, and bring it to HR. Have a “Plan B” in case HR doesn’t want to take action.
      I assumed in this question that the bias was unintentional, probably unconscious, which doesn’t make it less painful.

    2. davidmaxfield

      I agree, in part. When you put a microscope on someone, you will see flaws. It’s inevitable. When you treat them as flawed, you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
      However, I want to distinguish between intentional and unintentional bias. Conscious, purposeful discrimination is alive and well, and needs to be treated as a discipline/legal problem. Collect the evidence. Document the places, times, and circumstances. Use quotes to capture what was said. If possible, get verification from witnesses. Then take your evidence to HR.
      I was assuming that that the bias in this particular question was more unintentional and unconscious. In these cases I’m more optimistic that it can be solved.
      Have you seen it differently?

    3. David Maxfield

      I agree that whenever you are under a microscope, people will discover you have flaws–and may focus on them. In the worst case, their actions become even more negative, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
      However, I want to draw a bright line between Intentional and Unintentional Bias.
      Intentional Bias is very real and damaging. Collect the evidence. Document the places, times, people, and circumstances where it occurs. Use quotes to capture what is said. Involve others as witnesses whenever possible. Then take your evidence to HR.
      Unintentional Bias is far more pervasive, and can also be incredibly hurtful. But I’m a lot more confident it can be solved–or at least managed, using some of the skills I discussed here.

  2. T. Stinnett

    The advice is spot on for the writer. However, I am thinking about the juxtaposition of a female IT team member, at an all-girls school, given feedback on facial expressions by male supervisor /team members. In the bigger picture, I suspect their unexamined biases of theses adults in the school are likely apparent to students and other female staff as well. Seek out a mentor outside of the IT group, preferably a long time teacher, who loves her/his job and environment at the school.

  3. Mary

    The one area that you did not address is whether the accusations of bias are in fact well-founded. Perhaps the criticisms are real and only perceived as biased.

    1. davidmaxfield

      Yes, criticism is hard to take, and believing it is bias, not fact, could be a defense. I hope the advice I gave for responding to criticism (avoid defending, seek clarity, and go public with your changes) will help.

  4. Ralph Parker

    My spiritual path refers to that response as answering with equanimity. Well done!! Parker

  5. Joe Magid

    Re: Schedule two to three appointments per week with your customers

    I’d tread a bit carefully on this suggestion if it is not already standard practice for the team. If the “men” don’t already do this, they should, but you doing it, seemingly out of the blue, may have them seeing you as trying to show them up or rock the boat.

    Perhaps start out with follow-up calls to a few people you’ve completed work for to make sure everything is OK. When you’ve done that for a bit, it won’t seem as far out of the ordinary if you then set up time to talk about almost anything that may have come up in conversation with one or more of them, you’ll just be doing more follow-up.

  6. Julie

    I found the book “Thanks for the Feedback” Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen to be a valuable tool. Sheila Heen also has a condensed version through the TedTalk platform –

  7. Margaret Grün-Kerr

    Your message seems to be to make yourself above reproach. On top of this find someone to mentor you. Then you should have a better time being accepted in this environment.
    That seems a bit much to ask, just be accepted.

    1. davidmaxfield

      I agree that it isn’t “fair”. I think of the problem as involving “the seed and the soil”. The “seed” is the individual who is experiencing bias, and wants to succeed, no matter how unwelcoming the organization may be. The “soil” is the organization, that should want to become more welcoming to everyone.
      In this case, my advice was to the “seed” the individual who finds herself in unwelcoming soil. It may take heroic actions for her to be successful. This is an unfair situation.
      I did not offer any advice to the leaders who run the school where she is employed. They obviously need to do a lot of work to change their organization to be more welcoming, so that these unfair situations are eliminated.
      Thanks for pointing out this important point!

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