Most people understand that stereotypes are not socially acceptable and therefore will not easily admit to having them. And yet, if there is no recognition and acceptance of this very human tendency, then there really can be no true progress toward overcoming it. There are many steps we can take to change our behavior, and most require an open mind. For example, in some societies that pride themselves on fairness and equality, most people claim that they judge others according to their character, skill, performance, or merit. But we should recognize that such terms as character, skill, performance, and merit are defined differently by various societies and by each of us as human beings.
In addition to keeping an open mind, it is important to recognize the difficulty in being truly objective. Research has shown that most individuals grossly overestimate their ability to be objective, not only because it is a human tendency to do so, but also because the corporate world and societies have perpetuated this myth about human objectivity.
Another important challenge in overcoming human subjectivities is that we do not understand the differences between implicit and explicit biases and stereotypes. Implicit assumptions about those who are different from us affect our perceptions of their abilities, particularly if we do not understand or acknowledge that these assumptions arise from within ourselves. To better understand where our biases and stereotypes come from, it is helpful to remember that there are two types of biases: explicit and implicit.
Our explicit views and perceptions are those of which we are aware and can control. We employ them intentionally as the result of introspection, deep thought, and closely examined beliefs. They are also the attitudes and judgments we are willing to endorse, support, and consciously act upon. These biases are formed not only from our experiences and socialization, but also by societal values, beliefs, and behaviors.
By contrast, our implicit assumptions are those that we do not know exist and cannot control without considerable work and self-examination. These biases and stereotypes are not a result of intentional thought and have not been subjected to any introspection. Because we are not aware of their existence and do not claim these beliefs, we cannot endorse or support them. It is this subterranean pull, which makes implicit assumptions so dangerous. These unexamined beliefs prevent even the most well-meaning humans from making truly unbiased decisions.
We all tend to favor those who are most like us, but at what cost? Are we forsaking relationships with people who are different from us, not based on character and positive values but on superficial appearance?
We approach each person we encounter with a set of ideas that we have developed through experience, knowledge, hearsay, media portrayals, and taught behaviors. For instance how these factors can impact our decision-making processes, consider the following promotion scenario. In a corporation, managers are ready to make promotions and have a group of qualified candidates. Although they are aware of the consequences for discrimination, these managers also have implicit biases and stereotypes that affect their decision-making. The candidates are all qualified, so the personal preferences of the managers are often the deciding factor in the end. One candidate speaks with an accent, one has a different ethnic background from the manager, one is of a different race, another is of a different age, and one attended the manager’s alma mater. Who ends up getting the promotion? Research shows that those managers will be more likely to choose candidates who are most like them, playing into the in-group favoritism that humans developed for survival reasons nearly one hundred thousand years ago.
It is clear that there is only one way to overcome this tendency to bias and stereotyp each one of us must understand his or her own life experiences and values to recognize our particular explicit and implicit assumptions. First, we must understand how the human brain works on some level—its shortcomings, its strengths, and its weaknesses. We need to work extremely hard to not stereotype and show bias. This is not an indictment of human nature; this is simply a realization that we all have our own work to do before we are able to act as objectively as possible. Before we can truly create an environment based on trust, respect, empathy, and ethics. (GlobalTREESM),and before we can truly appreciate, value, respect, and harness the talents, creativity, and experiences of all humans, and, yes, before we can move toward much fairer organizations and societies, we must acknowledge and understand how implicit biases and stereotypes interfere with achieving these objectives.