6 min read

Who? Not Me!

Orange background with colored woodblock prints of an illustration of the human brain

Overcoming the Shame of Bias

Earlier this month, Elizabeth M. Adams generously shared a helpful guide that describes different types of artificial intelligence bias. Ms. Adams' guides are easy to read and something you should share with team members and colleagues. Her AI bias guide puts a frame around important concepts that digital leaders need to consider and understand—ideas that, in my experience, people sometimes struggle to understand and differentiate.

Ms. Adams’ definition of confirmation bias—that is, "…our propensity to believe information that supports our preexisting opinions and ignore information that contradicts them"—got me thinking about ways in which bias impacts digital teams. Ms. Adams discusses her definition with a view toward how it "leads to machine learning searches that reinforce biases." Of course, the whole world of AI bias is rich with timely debates and policy initiatives at the forefront. But I want to take things in a more personal direction and talk about a particular dynamic around bias that I see when team leaders become aware of the consequences of their affinity and confirmation bias in the hiring process—shame.

There is a big given in what follows—a belief of mine that you may or may not share. So, I want to state it clearly. I believe that diversity brings strength. That's my starting point, though of course, there is a broader dialogue to be had around this topic. In this piece from a couple of years back, the Harvard Business Review stated that many studies show that racial, age, and gender differences hinder team productivity. It also pointed out that there is a lack of balance with these studies—researchers more often focus on the negative. And in the same piece, they counter that argument: "Numerous studies have shown that less homogeneous teams exhibit more creativity. Such teams consider more options, process facts more carefully, are less likely to fall into the groupthink trap, and ultimately make better decisions."

For our global digital world to be ethical and fair, and minimize harm, I believe the digital maker community needs to center its values around inclusivity. We need to support the human family, as messy as that might get. Easy and fast isn't always the right path.

You Meant Things to Be Different, but They're Not

How do you feel when, despite what you consider your best efforts, you look around and realize that you have populated your team with people who, for the most part, look, think, act, eat, and play the same way you do? People who affirm and confirm who you believe yourself to be (competent, likable, coffee connoisseur, cool—maybe). Do you tense up with shame and ignore it? Do you defensively find excuses to justify the situation (e.g., the applicant pool is too narrow, or I don't have time to do the extra work)? Or do you acknowledge that as competent, well-intentioned, and tolerant as you are, you might have a blind spot?

Almost no one wants to think about the unintentional harm they cause through ignorance. We want to believe our work will magically reflect our beliefs and intentions. I'm good; therefore, I do good things that create positive effects. So, we're shocked and sometimes ashamed when harm manifests in ways we didn't intend.

I've been in this spot a lot when I travel. I have a list of embarrassing missteps I've made (and probably continue to make) when I step into new cultures. I'm one human being with only my lived experiences to guide me. I'm going to make mistakes. Hopefully, not the same ones over and over, but then there is that too. I've learned to research before I travel, observe more than speak, and apologize when I realize my ignorance causes harm. Sometimes the apology is accepted, and sometimes I get vitriol. That’s just the way it is.

On the other side, I try to accept the apologies of others when they wake up to their blind spots and biases about me and who I am. I'm also privileged enough to remove myself from situations where people aren't interested in personal growth or positive change but are more invested in righteousness, retaliation, or harm. I try to learn, forgive, and not empower willful ignorance by giving it my attention. For me, this is a way forward. The balance for others might be different. It takes a multiplicity of actions and ways of being in the world to effect change. Play your base, whatever that is, and allow others to play theirs. But play.

So, What Do You Do?

You're not alone in making missteps on the diversity, equity, and inclusion front. But you need to steady yourself so you can be in a place to correct your course. I'm convinced that once people in the digital maker community put their minds to it, this problem can be solved. This community is rich with creativity and a respect for human-centered design. And there's plenty of advice on the web about how to staff a more diverse team. Earlier this year, for example, Forbes offered a piece on how to build inclusive design teams. Andy Vitale and I interviewed Jose Coronado on the Surfacing Podcast this year. He talked about some creative methods he's using to bring a more varied worldview into his team. But to even be open to these methods as a leader, you must be comfortable occupying the space where you can see your ignorance. And you must also be able to sit with the feelings that arise once the implications of that ignorance come into focus. This is where mindfulness comes into play.

Getting Comfortable with Your Imperfections

One of the benefits of my meditation practice—of sitting on a cushion and watching my thoughts go by—is that I see the difference between a thought that I have in the moment and the long train of generally not-real nonsense that follows it. I have become familiar with the action-packed stories I make up, where I'm alternately the victim, the hero, and the villain. Or, how I attach a passed outcome to current reality: It happened like that before; therefore, it will happen just like that again. I invent rich worlds that exist only in my head. We all do. And when negative or shameful thoughts come up, it's easy to escape into fantasy. It's a comfort.

Insight comes when I can stay with the uncomfortable feeling and understand its nature, so I'm in a position to break through and create the space that allows me to make different choices. By turning away from the reality of my ignorance, I'm likely to repeat the same behaviors. But by facing it, I can see and change behaviors that keep me from truly being the person I want to be.

What feelings come up when you think about the not particularly diverse team you have created? If you value inclusivity, shame might arise—or some other uncomfortable feeling. When you sit with that uncomfortable feeling with a non-judgmental heart, if only for a few minutes, you will see that it doesn't define all of who you are. And if you sit with it longer still, you will see that the long tail of stories you invent about it, or that social media tells you about, are probably not entirely true. Or maybe they are, but you see that you can choose to be different. If you stay with it even more, you learn to be more at ease with your imperfections. You learn to forgive the blind spots that developed through your conditioning and lived experiences and move in a different direction. You can start another story that begins with you acting from a place of change and growth instead of avoidance.

Working through this personal barrier will help provide the space for you to have honest conversations with yourself and your team. Of course, this doesn't mean you must create a confessional work environment. We're all allowed to keep private thoughts private, but hopefully, being comfortable with your shortcomings and blind spots will help you establish an atmosphere of honest, not evasive or virtue-based, dialogue—which is solid ground for change. If you are looking for more guidance, here is some information from two of my teachers, Ruth King and Tara Brach.

Ruth King Course – Thoughts on Structural Racism and Leadership

Tara Brach: “Inviting Mara to Tea

As always, I express deep gratitude to all those who have helped sustain and hold the Buddhist teachings that inform my work and practice. Their persistence and generosity have allowed this knowledge to flow from Asia to North America and Europe, and ultimately, to my doorstep.

Remember, you are enough and are already in the right place with the right skills to make a positive change.