The Handshake

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The Handshake

The Insidious Under-Pinning of Unconscious Bias.

It started with a handshake. Of course, we didn’t know anything had “started” at the time. It seemed so regular, normal, and frankly, almost meaningless. It was certainly automatic. So, when the facilitator asked participants of PRISM’s New York City Forum, “What did you see?” Some of the attendees looked sheepish while others seemed more bemused. No one said anything. The silence held for a moment until Paul, the facilitator, said, “Let’s do it again.”

Truthfully, the second handshake wasn’t much different from the first. The woman thrust out her right hand, holding it perpendicular to the floor. Paul did the same. They clasped hands and both gave a vigorous, though not overwhelming, shake. Then Paul turned back to the room and looked expectantly. Again. And we in the audience stared back, knowing this time that we had missed something, but not knowing what it was.  What could an act this familiar, this commonplace, teach us?

“You’ve just witnessed an act of unconscious bias,” Paul said. “Not all cultures greet someone with a handshake. In some cultures, it’s a kiss on the cheek. In other’s two kisses, one for each cheek. And still other cultures have completely different greeting customs.”

At his words, people nodded their understanding. The insidious under-pinning of unconscious bias is the thoughtless familiarity it brings to actions. It is the difficulty of guarding against old patterns of thought that relentlessly rush us into decision making. But many of us already know this and still our unconscious mind can push us to make decisions that frankly are not in a leader’s or organization’s best interest.  So, what can we do?

  • Do not assume that you will not be impacted by unconscious bias. As humans, we all are. However, once we recognize we have biases, it is our choice about whether we will act on them or not.
  • Allow yourself your first thought, but do not act on it until you have truly examined it for bias. Carefully examine the potential impact of your second thought before acting on it.
  • Be willing to be truthful with yourself. Test your assumption AND your certainties.
  • Hold your “truths” lightly. Often the “truth” and what we believe is the “truth,” are not the same. Think of ways you can test your assumptions and “truths” before acting on them.
  • Bring others who have different perspectives and experiences than yours into your decision making. Joint decision making on such things as hiring, employee engagement, disciplining and firing employees is particularly important when you are trying not to act on biased perspectives.
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