"It's really simple," said Ian, who was four years old. "I just pick her up and turn her so she's walking towards something safe." He was talking about his two-year old sister, whom he'd been tasked with keeping out of trouble. Sure enough, she would walk until she hit a wall, for example, then she'd sit and play with whatever was at hand. And Ian could go back to doing what he loved most: getting lost in his own world, and drawing loads of dinosaurs and people with 15 fingers per hand.
This is something I could understand - I was (am!) a dreamer, but also got asked to look after my sister in small ways when we were little, a decidedly practical real-world task. I didn't mind doing it, though, because my mother always explained why she needed this help - perhaps she was working (she worked from home), or making dinner, or was just really tired and needed a break. Also, my sister was a pretty easy and fun charge.
And to this day, I often feel like I should look out for others. And if leaders (like my mother) have solid rational for what they ask me to do, I'll do it. My rebellious streak only comes out where there is a lack of logic.
This is an example of how our childhood experiences can impact who we are today, in the workplace and outside of it. It impacts how we interact with authority or what kind of leader we'll become.
And it is experiences like this that feed into our unconscious bias, which is simply a way of acting that we haven't reflected upon (aren't conscious of) which makes us lean towards a particular way of being.
The thing is, it's just one way of being. It's not necessarily right. I recently worked with a leader who was command-and-control. I got upset when he didn't explain his strategy to me, and so I felt he showed me up in a talk we were jointly giving, because I wasn't in on what he was going to talk about. My frustration stemmed from an unconscious bias called the interpersonal Empathy Gap Effect, which simply says that we have trouble empathising with someone who is in a different state of mind than our own.
But, then I learned about his own childhood experiences of parental loss and how that has led him to need to be in control as much as he can.
All of a sudden, his actions made sense. We could have a conversation about it. We could understand what made the other act in a way that we hadn't previously understood.
This is why it's so important to address unconscious bias in the workplace: by reflecting upon our own past and subsequent behaviours and habits, we improve our ability to communicate with others, thereby improving our engagement and productivity.
I'm running a workshop in London along with employment lawyer Jane Johnson (Gelbergs) and HR consultant Zoe Wilson (Friary West) on 4th April that will explore unconscious bias, as well as the HR and legal ramifications of failing to address it in the workplace. More information and tickets here.