Challenging Personal Bias and the Status Quo
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Albert Einstein
This week I recognized a bias in myself. While in conversation with people who are deeply important to me, there arose a difference of opinion. On reflection, my view was strongly influenced by a loaded word that has significant meaning to me. Over the next few days while finalizing research for this blog, I came across an article that partly represented my view, and I sent the article to my friend. Her response and interpretation focused on content that I had overlooked, and that frankly was initially insignificant to me. This is because I read the article through my filters and with a focus on what validated my perspective.
After reading the article again, I was able to see content that I had originally ignored. This is an example of falling into the trap known as confirmation bias. Fortunately, that does not make me a “bad” person, just very human because everyone operates with bias. Unfortunately, it also gets in the way of fully listening to another’s perspective and could lead to inaccurate or unreasonable conclusions.
What is Bias
“Bias is a natural inclination for or against an idea, object, group, or individual. It is often learned and is highly dependent on variables like a person’s socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, educational background, etc.” (Psychology Today). There are many types of bias. One category is known as cognitive biases, or repeated patterns of thinking, that help people to quickly come to conclusions. This can be valuable and efficient because our brain works a bit like a computer that rapidly scans for existing relevant information.
Confirmation bias, also known as “motivated reasoning,” falls into the cognitive bias category. The brain unconsciously focuses on finding information that supports existing beliefs and ignores information that is contrary to those beliefs. Another bias called Anchor bias occurs when the brain grabs onto early information and uses it unconsciously to anchor decision-making even when information is inaccurate.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow describes our brains as having two different systems of operation: automatic and effortful. The automatic system is designed so that we are not exhausted by moving through our day to day functioning. “Psychologists think of ideas as nodes in a vast network called associative memories, in which each idea is linked to many others.” This rapid fire linking connects multifaceted ideas together and is “silent and hidden from our conscious mind.” But as complexity and risk or opportunity increase, being on automatic pilot can be dangerous. The effortful system kicks in when we slow down and use rational function and deductive reasoning. Awareness of the brain’s automatic system may open a door to identifying when to slow down and question unconscious bias and its impact. By recognizing that one’s experience is only a piece of the larger truth individuals can practice and master Perspective Taking.
The Game Changer: Perspective Taking
The Disruptive Design Method created by Dr. Leyla Acargglu uses innovative design and systems thinking to create positive change. One of the skills Acargglu identified to disrupt the status quo is Perspective Shifting which she defines as “consistently being able to reflect and explore the world from diverse perspectives, overcome biases and be able to put yourself in the shoes of others to understand why people think or behave differently to you based on their own life and learning experiences.”
Conflict, which is created by differences in personality, beliefs, and opinions can be a powerful tool for innovative problem solving because it increases information and therefore options. The authors of Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader (Runde & Flanagan) assert that to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity that differences offer, one must learn to master Perspective Taking, a behavior defined as “the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view.” They believe that Perspective Taking is the most positive and active behavior to utilize during times of conflict, and sadly it is underutilized. A common approach is to push to be heard and to persuade that one’s own perspective is “right.” This rarely results in changing another’s view because in invalidates his or her experience. Runde and Flanagan aim to help leaders learn how to suspend judgment on who is “right or wrong” and let go of the need to win at all cost. Perspective Taking may be the most important tool to harness the inherent power of differences that can help to disrupt the status quo.
In many ways the status quo is an illusion that we both abhor and cherish. Dynamism and progress war with constancy and predictability as we dance with the nature of change. Systems thinking and chaos theory help to clarify that conflict is a signal that change is trying to happen. The future is always uncertain and difficult to predict “but such uncertainty lies at the very heart of human creativity" (Wheatley, 2000). In Disturb Me, Please, Margaret Wheatley says that it is our need to already know the answer that is the true danger to innovation. The inability to relinquish our certainty long enough to listen to those who see the world differently is an obstacle to sustainable change. The only way to move forward together is to hold our world experience lightly while visiting the world of another. This requires a willingness to unknow what we think is the “truth.” The keys to a new future begin when we let go of the past and challenge how we think.
There are four key strategies that can be leveraged to enhance Perspective Taking.
Activate open-mindedness by being willing to search actively for evidence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available. Since attending advanced organizational and relationship systems training fifteen years ago the statement nobody gets to be wrong and everyone is right but only partially helps me remember that while I am at the center of my world, I am not at the center of our world. It is a work in progress that takes intention and awareness to slow down and consider views that are different from my own. Patience is passion tamed and I have a lot of passion for my point of view! Being patient and present with others helps to see, connect, and value differences. The point is not to change them, but to be changed by visiting their world.
Quick Hit: Listen for what is important to the other and let go of the need to defend your point of view. Relinquishing the need to be right is a powerful way to begin the collaborative process. Search instead for ways to align with the wisdom that exists in another’s perspective.
Be Self-Aware of Filters One of the quickest ways to notice being stuck in a perspective is if it is packaged in absolutes. This is an example of holding a fixed mindset. Fixed mindset can be described as a black and white view, which removes the possibility there is a bit of gray (or even vermilion). If you find that your self-talk holds judgments, assumptions, rationalizations, and you are digging-in your heels it may be time to slow things down and check your filters.
Quick Hit: Notice when you judge others life experiences as less valid or find yourself rationalizing why you are right, and they are wrong. 1. Learn more about biases and look for any filter that might impact your point of view. 2. Practice stepping into other shoes and look at the situation through different eyes. 3. Try Viewpoint Shift, a facilitator geography exercise that has each party shift roles and speak from the other's position.
Cultivate curiosity Years ago Steven Covey said, “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Boy did he get that right! Before defending your position, ask questions to try and hear what or where another’s perspective comes from.
Quick Hit: Ask questions like: Tell me more about why you feel that way? What led you to that conclusion? What is important about this? Where did you learn/hear about that? What experience is influencing your decision? What other options have you considered?
Collectively Make-Meaning When all involved are willing to be changed by the different perspectives represented, a more expansive world view is attainable. Co-activity occurs when it is no longer “my way” or “your way” but rather a “new way” a “better way.” Innovators have found that the greater the capacity to value differences the easier it is to innovate. This does not imply one must abdicate a deeply held value or belief for the sake of the collective view, it just means we no longer blindly accept that which we have not fully explored when the stakes are high.
Quick Hit: When you are ready to share your point of view, avoid saying, “you’re wrong” and instead use “I” statements. For example: “I have a different take on that…are you open to hearing about it? After all parties have been fully heard, discussing what new possibilities exist can create a hybrid view or solution. Uncensored brainstorming works well if a next step needs to be agreed upon.
- For more information on bias, check out this article on Psychology Today.
- Interested in Meg Wheatley? Here is a link to Disturb Me, Please
- You can find a Quick guide to the disruptive design method, right here!
- Be sure and check-out my interview with Craig Runde, co-author of Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader!
If you like this blog, you might enjoy our upcoming FREE Webinar that overviews the program, Creating Collaborative Partnerships.