Changing Biases: An Entity vs. Incremental Approach

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Natalie-HolderWithin the last 10 years, America has enjoyed a rapid evolution toward open-mindedness. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that gay couples should be afforded the same right to marry as heterosexuals. The terms microaggressions, affirmation, and inequities roll off the tongues of today’s college students like the latest hit songs. We are finally being honest about the existence of our unconscious biases in that there are more mainstream journalists opining about their impact on algorithms, jury panels, and police forces. And many of our workplaces regularly offer trainings, symposia, and talks that encourage conversations around diversity and inclusion.

That’s why the latest recruitment video for the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Alabama, filled with images mostly of blond women and apparently no students of color, created a media frenzy for its lack of diversity. However, the video was merely a reminder of how we actively create in-groups (us) and out-groups (them). Yes, we all create these groups, especially in our workplaces. The concept of in-groups and out-groups is not new and is so commonly understood that it is rarely debated. As human beings, we have a natural inclination to look for and align ourselves with the familiar. The next time you walk into a reception, take a moment to observe how people splinter into groups. Most likely, you will find that there is some thread of similarity that binds each group. Our biases help to explain why we are inclined to choose friends, spouses, and even employees with whom we identify. To feel comfortable, most of us automatically seek to eliminate the unknown in our social and interpersonal interactions.

We move into the intergroup bias territory when we systematically value our own membership group more favorably than we do the out-group. We often see these intergroup biases at play in recruitment and promotion decisions. In fact, many in management are not shy about admitting that they choose to work with senior leaders whom they like. It is often much easier to work with someone who shares your work style, sense of humor, and perspectives — the antithesis of diversity. It is this bias and favoritism that stumps most leaders who seek to create inclusive and performance-driven organizations. With all of the training, awareness, and education about diversity and inclusion nowadays, many organizations suffering from diversity fatigue are wondering if they will ever be able to rid people of their biases.

A fascinating study, called Is Racial Bias Malleable? Whites’ Lay Theories of Racial Bias Predict Divergent Strategies for Interracial Interactions, reveals two schools of thought regarding how to approach bias. There are entity theorists and incremental theorists, and the only thing that separates the effectiveness of the two is perspective. How we approach inclusion, retention, and working with out-groups will greatly predict how successful our outcomes will be.

The Fear-Driven Approach
Entity theorists believe that bias is fixed and can never change, therefore they are less curious about out-groups and limit their exposure to them. They fear saying something insensitive or demonstrating their limited knowledge of other groups; they also believe they could be ridiculed for their lack of awareness. Entity theorists therefore seek to avoid situations such as including an out-group member in lunch outings because their limited exposure to a different group might lead to awkward and uncomfortable moments.

They also avoid working with and mentoring members of out-groups, preferring to exit an interaction rather than learn more about the person and understand his or her perspective. The fear is that they would be found out as being inept in social interactions with out-groups. This is a level of unyielding control and vulnerability that they are not willing to expose themselves to. They are not interested in learning from “negative” experiences.

In contrast, incremental theorists see interactions with out-groups as opportunities to learn, gather feedback, and develop tactics and strategies for future encounters. Because incremental theorists believe that bias is malleable, they understand there is room for improvement. Their goal is not to stay at their current level of understanding, but to grow. They are open to negative feedback and take a “partner-relevant approach” to learning from difficult encounters.

The Partner-Relevant Approach
Rather than a “self-relevant approach” in which a person is learning to help only himself or herself (e.g., asking the only gay employee in the office a narrow question that makes him or her the ambassador of the LGBTQ community), a partner-relevant approach focuses on how a person’s biases can, for example, affect out-group members in a workplace. Partner-relevant approaches include asking an out-group member how he or she is feeling and trying to learn more about his or her individual perspective. It is as simple as asking what could or should you do differently during an interaction. Here is an example: A male-dominated business organization didn’t realize that the first woman it invited to join wouldn’t be allowed to dine with them at a men’s-only establishment. Rather than shrink from embarrassment, the men boldly walked out of the establishment with the woman, and they found a new meeting place. The men took the time to empathize with the woman, recognize the awkwardness of the situation, and make the necessary corrections.

Bias is malleable and can be re-shaped by being fearless but respectful. However, to be an incremental theorist, you must be willing to work around challenges that may arise.●

Natalie Holder, JD, is an employment lawyer who conducts diversity and workplace compliance training. She is the author of Exclusion: Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Recruitment, Retention, and Promotion