Biases, Boundaries and Bridges

Recent events and rhetoric on the national stage have brought to light the damage that stereotyping and marginalizing groups of people can have in creating unity and building bridges across cultural, gender, ethnic/racial, religious and generational divides. The obstacles created by bias and stereotyping has a damaging impact in the work environment as well. They negatively affect performance, engagement, motivation, commitment, and productivity. Ultimately, this sabotages teams’ ability to perform at their maximum ability.

In recent months I have seen a sharp increase in requests for training on unconscious bias from both corporate and educational clients. While it may be uncomfortable to explore our own biases, the ability to move beyond them to cultivate empathy and foster trust is critical to create high performing teams and foster an inclusive work environment.

In their book, “Blindspot”, Dr. Mazarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald of Project Implicit explore how so many of our biases are unconscious, often sparking actions, attitudes and behaviors triggered by programmed beliefs about groups of people “different” from us. I highly recommend taking the Implicit Association Test (, a free online tool that may provide some surprises as you become aware of some of your own biases.

Living in our multicultural society here in the U.S., most of us encounter cultural diversity in our personal and professional lives on a daily basis. Yet, how many people truly reflect on the barriers they erect as a result of these cultural differences? Our boundaries may be physical, attitudinal, behavioral, spatial, and metaphorical. While completely eliminating our biases may be difficult, being more mindful of the factors that contribute to them may allow us to pause and recalibrate before we take actions that may have a negative impact. Below are some tips to allow you to be more mindful of biases when they occur when interacting with others.

  • Beware of any preconceptions that may shape your behaviors. Since perception is reality, it’s critical to step back and assess any factors that may trigger a negative response towards someone. Does this individual remind you of someone else? Did you have a negative interaction with someone from his/her culture, race/ethnicity, religion, etc. that may be contributing to your reaction. How has the media played a role in how you view this person? Reflecting on these questions allows you the space to consider your response and find ways to look beyond your preconceived notions.
  • Pause and consider potential interpretations or consequences of your words and actions. Similarly, self-awareness of the factors that contribute to your own communication style and behaviors allows you to consider how different cultures may interpret them differently. For example, sarcasm may be your preferred sense of humor but it may be viewed as highly insulting to someone else. Even being overly solicitous to someone used to being marginalized may come off as insincere. While you may be taking strides to be politically correct your discomfort and over-zealous effort may harm any opportunity to build trust.
  • Ask questions for clarification instead of making assumptions. Assumptions are a deadly sin and usually lead to misinterpretation, miscommunication and mistrust. Beware of over-generalizing a person based on previous interactions you’ve had with someone from his/her culture, religion, race/ethnicity, age, etc. and instead ask questions. This will allow him/her to provide insight into his/her thinking, opinion and actions.
  • Be mindful of tone and body language that may be misconstrued or disrespectful. Since 93% of our communication is non-verbal and approximately 55% is body language and gestures, being conscious of of our tone and body language and being observant of their body language is key to minimizing potential misinterpretations. This is particularly important with people who are high context in their communication style or sensitive to bias as they will be much more astute in reading non-verbals.
  • Listen actively and hear what others say. In our multi-tasking lives, we rarely stop and truly listen to others. We often miss what is being said between the lines. Encouraging others to share their worldview can open our eyes (and ears!) to new ways of thinking or being as well as allow us to hear what they are saying. It also gives someone who is marginalized an opportunity to feel heard thereby helping build trust between you.
  • Attempt to step into another’s shoes to foster empathy. Finally, when we reflect on the negative labels, comments or messages we have received based on an important aspect of our identity, we can relate to others who are experiencing similar biases. This ability to empathize with others sensitizes us to times we may jump to conclusions and the hurt that it can cause. Sharing our own vulnerabilities allows us to connect with another individual more deeply and contributes enormously to building trust.
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Intercultural Alliances, LLC

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