Experiencing Unconscious Bias

A guided discussion by John Horn to identify unconscious bias and ‘unintended’ barriers in our workplace.

Video Transcript:

(John Horn) I want to start off by acknowledging that we’re on the traditional, unceded territory of the Coast Salish people represented here by the Tsleil-Waututh, the Musqueam and the Squamish First Nations. I want to pay my respects to elder’s past and present and get everyone to think a bit about what unconscious bias might mean as we go together in our journey of reconciliation over the years and years and years ahead to a place that’s more equal, more fair and a more inclusive community.

Here’s what we’re gonna talk about today. How many people here have some sort of idea about unconscious bias as a concept and as a training mechanism to enhance and accelerate diversity inclusion? I’m going to go through a bit of some of the key concepts about unconscious bias and share with you some activities, some stories, some quick kind of takeaways that you can bring back to your work and life.

And then I want to give a lot of time to think a bit about once we kind of accept and think about the unconscious biases that we bring to our work and life everyday. What are some strategies and tactics for mitigating those biases. So how does this strike you as the kind of things that we want to achieve together today. It’s understanding some core concepts. I think there’s a real importance about people walking out of here today with a personal connection to what this means to them and you’re not going to resonate right away with all the biases that I’m going to list.

I’ll talk a bit about our partner and the research they’ve done to identify hundreds of different biases that we bring to work and life every day. But making a personal connection to at least one is important. We’ll talk a bit about some strategies and tactics for mitigating bias.

So how many people here have a brain? Right, so if we have a brain we have a bias. And so what does that mean? I’ll talk about two things. So one is that over the last sort of thousands of years humanity’s culture, so this microphone, smartphones, how we talk, what we wear, where we get our information, the internet, cars, is all parts of our culture that has evolved at exponential paces. 

Our brains are still hardwired for the savannah, all right? What I mean by that is that our brains haven’t really evolved at the pace that our culture has evolved and this makes things pretty complex in today’s world. So we still think in these really fast ways of using bias to identify times we could be in danger. Using bias to define who’s in our in-group and who’s maybe in the out-group, right? And that could be by how people look if they’re strangers, the colour of their skin, their size, how they talk, accents, no accents, different languages, that sort of thing, right?

These are all types of biases that reflect this sort of hardwiring of the human brain that’s more reflective of when we were hiding from sabre-toothed tigers then we were, sort of, like, shrinking away from someone in a hoodie outside of SkyTrain terminal. But it’s an important thing to take away is that our culture is evolving at a pace that our hardwiring of our brain is not keeping up to. That’s one piece.

There’s also these ideas of thinking fast and thinking slow. So something about our biases is, biases are kind of good they help us make decisions based on experiences. So if you have a certain kind of experience, like, if you stand really close to someone and don’t smile and stare at them you’re gonna get a certain kind of reaction and it’s gonna happen over and over and over and over again until you meet that one person who also behaves that way and then you can have your moment.

But sort of experience after experience and after experience with that data is gonna help you over time make a quicker decision to not do that, to take a step back, to smile, to nod and this is how we build these kind of social skills and how we make very quick decisions, right? Some more complicated or complex kind of decision-making, like, where you’re gonna go on a family vacation or what to do with a million dollar grant you just got from the government, these kinds of things will be examples of how you might take a longer time to process this.

Biases is still gonna creep its way in. I’ll talk a bit about that. But how those are examples of very quick decision making and how bias can be helpful, like, humans wouldn’t get a lot done if it took us hours and hours to process what route to take to work, right? Or how we may not get a lot done if we didn’t have the patience to go through more complex or complicated decisions and take the time we needed to take.

So I’m gonna pause here for a second and talk a bit about what Vancity went through. So Vancity has partnered with Neuroleadership Institute. Has anyone here heard of the Neuroleadership Institute? So if you google David Rock and the Neuroleadership Institute, you’ll come up with a few pretty awesome articles just about like unconscious bias, what it is and how to mitigate certain kinds of bias and most importantly how to really look at diversity and inclusion as an accelerator for a healthier workplace, a healthier community, okay?

So we partnered with this organization. We have gone through so far 2, what I called sprints, so 30 days of learning, where there’s three what I call brain friendly videos that go through some key concepts about what is unconscious bias, how do they define it and organize these hundreds and hundreds of kinds of biases and then we have created discussion guides so people could talk about them.

Vancity made a very interesting choice. Typically this organization, they focus on just managers or people leaders going through the training. We made the choice to have everybody go through the learning. There’s, as you can imagine, quite a cost attached to that but you can see the outcome of this, like, it’s a hard thing to unlearn at this time. So we did a pilot group in August/September and then the rest of the organization that were available to go through the training went through in November/December.

It’s one of the most successful training initiatives we’ve ever run in terms of completion. So about 94% of the organization has completed this training experience. It’s just under, it’s like, 93.4,  I should be honest, it’s 93.4% of people have completed and we’re gonna be running another sprint in May or June to have everyone who’s been hired since, was a way during that experience, to go through this learning.

That’s one part of it, is this sprint. Three videos, a live webinar to discuss these concepts and now what we’re working on is thinking about how we’re going to sustain this. So how do we sustain this training through integration into some of our other learning and development programs, day to day work and people decisions, things like that.

I’ll give some examples about what that looks like at the end, okay? Great.

How many people have seen this before? And what is it? It’s the ladder of inference. So I was mentioning before about how human beings make decisions. So we see things, you’ve all seen me, you’ve probably made decisions about beards and ties and single or straight, white able-bodied men of privilege. And some of those things are confirmable because I just disclosed that to you and some of them are not confirmable like, you might wonder what’s going on in my head and in my brain and you’re gonna learn more about how to apply some of these concepts today and mental health and inclusion and access programs and accommodation kind of decision-making this afternoon.

So we have observational data based on our experiences and our biases we’re gonna select the kinda certain aspect of this data, we’re gonna add meaning to it maybe through some feedback or through conversations that we have. We’re gonna make assumptions based on that meaning and that feedback. And then we’re gonna draw conclusions kind of like, take action on what we decide.

And that’s sort of like, there’s a feedback loop in this. So as we have more experiences that are similar, different, you are gonna be quicker and quicker when you identify or are faced with some of those situations. So when we talk about the ladder of inference in our diversity inclusion model in a 5-day onboarding program for new hires and an immersion in Vancity’s culture for existing employees, we often talk about how the ladder of inference works when people walk into a branch or how the ladder of inference might work when people call into our call center.

Now what are the kind of split-second decisions, what are the biases that come to bear in people’s mind, whether they’re a financial services representative or a teller, a branch manager and what actions being taken might have positive or perhaps not so positive consequences and what are ways we can put in different kinds of decisions or thinking to mitigate bias as we go up and down our ladder of inference.

How this happened in a team meeting that I was leading a few weeks ago was we were talking about some of the nature of our youth internship program or a community leader internship program and focusing on providing employment for people who face barriers to employment. And one of the people on our team said, “but the interns we’ve had have all been awesome.” Like they don’t have barriers to employment, right?

So you can see going kind of up and down the ladder right there. There was an acknowledgement that the output of work is the only defining quality of someone who is working in an organization. Not really acknowledging what might be going on in their head. Why someone had to change their schedule to work from home because they have an anxiety disorder, which is a thing that happened. Or other kinds of invisible disabilities or invisible challenges people might face that could make their pursuit of employment difficult.

So that was an example where we got to talk about the ladder of inference and it was pretty funny because it was a person who teaches this stuff to new hires, so it was very receptive to getting some critical feedback about that concept.

These are very specific ways biases manifest. So it’s likely that you are going to favour people that look and speak and talk and behave in ways you do. You’re probably gonna… people favour decisions that are safer, like, the less risky that could be about trying a new thing at work. It could be public speaking, things like that. Things that are safer and come more comfortable is usually the route humans take.

And then as I take you back to the savannah and thinking how our brains are still hardwired to run away from tigers and saber-toothed tigers and elephants and mammoths and things like that. It’s like it starts to make a bit more sense that we favour safety and comfort over risk and innovation often. We struggle to think about things that are far away as opposed to what’s right in front of us.

And I gotta say as a fast talker, a natural activator, when I was going through this learning experience myself, I thought that the thing that I needed to work on the most was my bias for speed. To get things done quickly, start things, move things forward. And when I was asking for feedback from my team and my colleagues they all said, “sure but that’s one you know about and you’ve been trying to mitigate that bias over time. What you suck at the most is you put so much focus on the people that are right in front of you. You literally get out of your office, walk out the door, look at the people that are here and then work through a concept and probably assign work there. So anyone who’s working from home, working from a branch, away at a meeting is just left out of this and unless they’re given specific instruction isn’t brought along this piece of work and so things emerge out of context. That’s the thing you probably need to work on the most.”

So it’s an example of favoring things that are closer. And I’ll talk about some tactics in a second.

And then this is like one of the greatest challenges of humanity. You don’t need to solve this today. We can’t. But you should probably think about it, is whether it’s online communities or your social networks. Really think about how many people in your circle of friends, your Facebook friends, who you follow, the content you consume online or in print disrupts your worldview, right?

Or how many people are actively calling out your perspectives and views. This is a thing about biases. We tend to really gravitate to an in-group and people that see the world and think the same way that we do.

So let’s talk about hurricanes. So one of the really cool nuggets, for all the data heads out there, that the Neuroleadership Institute left us with is, they’re talking about how to bring this up in compelling ways. Did you know that one of the reasons that there was more devastation and tragedy after hurricanes with female names is related to unconscious bias? Why aren’t people prepared when they hear Katrina, Irma, Sandy but they get more prepared with Juan, George, Ivan?

So this is decades of research around this outcome. People from the Weather Network, FEMA Disaster Relief, have found that there is, it is unequivocal that after female named hurricanes there’s more destruction and the theory is that people, because they’re biased to women and the strength of women and the devastation that a female named hurricane will leave do not prepare as much as they do when they hear a male named hurricane.


So I was all in when I heard that as a part of their pitch. That is interesting stuff and I bring this up because this is deep. This goes to the very fiber of how we think, how we imagine ourselves and others and I encourage you to read more about it.

Let’s take a break from me chatting and let’s plant some seeds of understanding our bias. We’ve all taken some time to think about that and let’s talk about what to do next. So I’ll share a couple of examples of what I’ve taken into my practice and what sort of things that we’re doing on these micro levels and somewhat teen levels but to sustain this at Vancity.

So when I faced the decision, one of the things I can to mitigate my bias is to imagine someone else’s perspective. I’m not going to be able to always verbalize a problem or an idea to a group of people to test it against different kinds of perspectives. But there’s a chance that I can imagine some of that in my head.

So I have this friend of mine, we worked together at UBC when I worked there. His name is Darren and his very values aligned with me but he’s way more ruthless. And so the knock on me is when I have to make people decisions, I’m a pretty nice guy and I tend to be a bit overly flexible. That’s some feedback I’ve gotten, not from the team I manage surprisingly.

So when I imagine a people decision I often will take his perspective and ask what would Darren do in this situation. And really listen to that voice in my head about his perspective and what he would do differently and then apply that to my decision. That’s one example and it does need to be a friend, you know, that helps. But think of someone who operates a bit differently than you. That’s one way.

Another is to imagine, and it’s a pretty fun exercise, like what would a famous person do? Don’t pick Hitler. But like, what would a famous person do or a celebrity do? Someone who, you might not know exactly how they think but they’re sort of this image or this idea about them and how would they make a decision. That’s one example.

Another thing we’ve done is a recent hire for our team, we hired a new employee a couple months ago, was to actively surround myself with people who see the world differently than I do. So it was a great opportunity because he was gonna be working very closely with this person we were hiring. There’s a reason there. And also, just like, naturally sees the world very differently than I do.

And the other person we brought on too, we frustrate each other because she slows me down and I make her uncomfortable because I go so quickly so it seemed like a pretty good combination of different perspectives to really get to the truth of the matter so to speak.

So understanding what the biases are and then how they’re gonna inform the interactions with your team or decisions you’re making for sure.

One time in a job long ago before I had unconscious bias training and really thought deeply about this I may or may not have hired a man named John who was an extrovert. It went okay but I think I would have done things differently knowing what I know now.

And then a thing that’s been helpful for me, advice I got from a mentor a while ago, was the phrase ‘there’s something going on, I can’t totally put my finger on it, but I want to talk to you about it.’ And I want to help work with you to explore what’s going on because that’s pretty safe language. It identifies that you’re not coming in with judgment, you’re coming in with curiosity and then hopefully together the outcome could be reached.

I’ll wrap up with one last tip about mitigating the bias for the thing that’s right in front of you because as you know, this is one that I said I have to work on a lot. When you’re on conference calls, super simple, include the person or the people on the phone first. Do it every time and then it becomes habits. Like write a note, make it a practice. It goes a long way for them, it also, if they’re trying to coast through a meeting because they’re on the phone, they think no one’s gonna pay attention to them, it wakes about pretty quickly…


…and it changes their behaviour as well and their expectations. That’s just a simple thing to do.

So this is what we set out to achieve. We were looking at some of these things. We were pursuing and investigating in terms of diversity inclusion, looking at becoming a place where intercultural understanding is the norm, access is the norm and this idea of unconscious bias really underscores all of this kind of stuff. So you think about what our perceptions are, how we think, how our brain is wired and that’s not good or bad it’s just the way it is.

And then what happens because of it was this kind of foundational piece that needed to happen before we could really move forward at scale with all this other stuff. Like focusing on Indigenous communities, access to people that have neurodevelopmental disabilities or physical disabilities, understanding how to make a community culture, an organizational culture, where everybody’s a little bit uncomfortable because everybody’s kind of more or less coming to the table on similar terms.

So everyone should be kind of uncomfortable because anyone who’s totally comfortable is gonna be the dominant culture, the dominant decision-maker and that means they’re taking a bit from others. So to have that, we knew we needed this foundational piece, right?

And then the choice of the Neuroleadership Institute. I’m gonna come down and high-five you because you’re really patient. The Neuroleadership Institute is a best-in-class for brain friendly training. So as someone who’s done this a lot in a few organizations, there’s a correlation between how the micro learning of this particular kind of training is connected to the results we got, right?

So we weren’t asking people to take a 90 minute webinar and pound their face against the keyboard to get through to get the same outcome. We had formative videos and gave a lot of power to everyone in the organization to bring it up on their terms how they saw fit and in their work.

Thank you very much for your time. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Have a wonderful day.