Perspectives: Exploring Unconscious Bias with Howard Ross

Exploring unconscious bias with lifelong social justice advocate Howard Ross

Unconscious bias is just that — unconscious. It’s an unawareness of social stereotypes about a certain race or group. 

Also known as implicit bias, it can affect how we perceive the world and create a barrier to inclusion, which is a problem in some organizations. According to a recent study from the Center for Talent Innovation, employees who perceived bias at large companies were “three times as likely to leave their employers within the year.”

Capital One has long committed to creating and fostering a safe, diverse, and inclusive workplace. We know that our differences make us stronger – more innovative, more nimble, and more resilient. To foster productive conversation around implicit bias, we recently held an interactive session with Howard Ross, a lifelong social justice advocate and co-founder of Udarta Consulting, about the hidden biases that compromise diversity.

Activism, a “Family Business”

Ross began fighting for social justice as a teenager, following in the footsteps of his grandfather.

“My family is Jewish and from Eastern Europe, and we came out of a pretty intensely tragic Holocaust experience, where 43 members of our family were killed in two days when the Nazis killed all but 100 of the 5,000 Jews who lived in the village my grandfather grew up in.”

His grandfather later became an activist, not only inspiring Ross’s work, but also the work of his two siblings. After working as a teacher and school administrator, Ross made the transition to consulting in the mid-80s — when diversity consultancy started to take off — and began working with organizations to create cultures in which people “feel a true sense of belonging.”

He co-founded Cook Ross in 1989, and after selling the company in 2018, co-founded Udarta Consulting, “a collaborative consultancy focusing on inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and belonging.”

“We look at patterns of behavior that contribute to organizational function at a higher level, which includes how people get along with each other, how they’re seen and heard, and of course, how much inclusion there is, and whether people feel like there’s a real sense of being able to do their work effectively within an organization,” says Ross.

This allows an understanding of human motivation on a whole other level, he explains, which is important for understanding how to create workplace environments where people can really thrive. Something that’s needed in this day and age. 

“We're in this condition of extreme polarization. It's not only political, but also racial, and people bring these issues to work with them, just like they bring their laptop computer and their lunch,” he says. “If we ignore those issues and just expect people to deal with them on their own, we're likely to have people who are untrusting or suspicious of each other, and who don’t work as effectively as a team.”

Helping people deal with some of these issues, he adds, can help them become more productive employees.

The Everyday Bias

But while helping employees cope with these issues can build trust within an organization and promote greater productivity, bias can show up overtly or covertly, and it’s sometimes difficult to know whether its conscious or unconscious, a subject that Ross addresses in his book, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives.

“As human beings, we make up stuff about each other, and then project our values onto that. And if we’ve accepted certain stereotypes without even realizing, we may judge people unconsciously,” he says. “We think that we're rational as human beings, but we're actually rationalizing. We gather the information to support what we already believe.”

The problem, as explains Ross, is that when we apply this to people, it can result in situations like police officers pulling a trigger before they should, or somebody not getting a job despite their qualifications.  

Making decisions in a semi-conscious or unconscious way can also create a sense of tribalism, he warns. This involves doing something — not because you wanted to — but because everybody else was doing it, or not doing something because no one else wanted to do it. 

This can be extremely positive in a healthy organization, or extremely negative in an unhealthy organization.

But the good news is that we can bridge the gap. It starts with reaching out to people who are different from us and maintaining personal relationships, even as we disagree about issues, says Ross. “We should keep conversations about the issues, and not so much about the personality, and remember that there’s humanity under all of us.”

Systemic Racism and Bias

One topic of discussion during Capital One’s interactive session was systemic racism, and how this pattern has been held together by unconscious bias.

“It’s sort of an unholy alliance. Our biases contribute to systemic racism, and systemic racism continues to contribute to our individual biases. So it's sort of a self-replicating system,” Ross says. 

He feels that we still have a long way to go in terms of our conversations about race and our ability to talk about it and see it as a system, rather than individual blame. But, he hopes that we can think of social justice as not a political issue, but rather a way to understand each other better as human beings.

“I'm hoping that we start to see diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the manner of, how do we do this in a way that the maximum number of people feel like they belong to this process? Or, how do we do it in a way that there's no sense that anybody's being treated inequitably?”

“People have said for years that diversity is being invited to the dance and inclusion is being allowed to dance. I like to say that belonging is when you get to choose some of the music.”

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