How Unconscious Biases Block Effective Interactions


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Sara Taylor discusses her new book, 'Filter Shift: How Effective People See the World'

bookMost people would not consider themselves biased. But a new book says that nearly everyone has unconscious biases — and they affect how we interact with others, with real consequences. Filter Shift: How Effective People See the World by Sara Taylor notes that one can learn to manage these biases, or filters, by being mindful that they are there and then working on ways to address them.

Critical to the process is the “Platinum Rule,” which is learning to treat people how they not you — would like to be treated, because what works for you may not work for others. Taylor recently shared insights from her book on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which is part of Wharton Business Radio that airs on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you talk of ‘filter shift,’ what exactly do you mean?

Sara Taylor: This is about how our unconscious [biases] dictate how we’re seeing our interactions. What we need to [recognize] are the filters operating in our unconscious, and eventually [learn] to shift those filters in order to be more effective.

Knowledge@Wharton: How many people realize they probably have this problem and are able to manage it? You say that to navigate through this problem one could learn along the way.

Taylor: With one of the cultural competence models that we use, we see that between 95% and 99% of us don’t realize that we have a problem. That’s the number of folks that have a significant gap between where they think they are versus where they actually are in their [level of] competence in interacting [with other types of people].

What does that mean? If I think that I’m Wonder Woman when it comes to having interactions with folks that are different from me, in reality, I don’t have that skill. That means I’ve got some huge blind spots, and it might also mean that I’m unintentionally offending others. None of us wants to unintentionally offend others. So, learning how to filter-shift helps us to become more intentional, and match our impact with that good intent.

“Between 95% and 99% of us don’t realize that we have a problem.”

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s an interesting example in the book involving [a meeting between former Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein and [former New Mexico governor] Bill Richardson, and how subtle some of these slights could be

Taylor: The key learning in that story is, we’ve got all kinds of great mantras and philosophies that we all live by. But we don’t realize that many times, those mantras perpetuate this ineffectiveness. The one that we talked about with that particular story is the mantra of the Golden Rule: We should treat others as we want to be treated. That is a reflection of one of the ineffective [phases along the] five stages of development.

Why is that ineffective? Because it’s based on just this teeny, tiny assumption that the whole universe wants to be treated the way I want to be treated. That’s not the case. We’ve got to learn how to treat others as they want to be treated, which is the Platinum Rule.

Knowledge@Wharton: Richardson was sitting at the table, getting ready to meet with Saddam Hussein, and he had his knee crossed over his other leg. That allowed the bottom of his shoe to be seen, which is a big insult in Iraqi culture.

Taylor: Bill Richardson is a very competent, very successful and very effective person. He even had three staff people helping him prepare for that meeting for three months. Yet, it was still over in less than a minute, because it was incredibly offensive, the way he was showing the sole of his shoe.

That would be the equivalent of Saddam Hussein sending a diplomatic emissary to President Clinton, and that diplomatic emissary sitting down in the Oval Office would be flipping off President Clinton. (While Saddam Hussein abruptly left the room, he returned a while later to the meeting, as Richardson noted in a 1996 interview in Fortune magazine.)

The learning there is that we can’t know what every gesture [means]. But, Bill Richardson [could have prepared] from the perspective of Saddam’s filters — how does Saddam look at this meeting? [Instead,] what he did to approach it was to say, “What would I want if I were in Saddam’s shoes?” That’s the Golden Rule, and that’s what tripped him up.

[Richardson] thought, “If I were in Saddam’s shoes, I wouldn’t want the big powerhouse of the world, the United States, coming in and being all uppity and formal with me. I’d want them to be informal.” That’s why he went into that meeting, sat down, leaned back, crossed his legs, and up went the sole of his shoe.

Knowledge@Wharton: That could similarly play out in boardrooms or negotiation tables and have a negative effect.

Taylor: That’s right. The reality is, lots of us aren’t in situations like that, with a dictator who can just get up and leave a meeting because they’re upset. For the rest of us, we may be in meetings or in other interactions, and we might get a sense afterward that, “Hmm, I don’t know that that went very well.” We don’t have the [other] person telling us [what was amiss]. We don’t have the person getting up and leaving. So, we don’t have those cues from others everyday that we’re not being our most effective [selves].

Knowledge@Wharton: The word ‘see’ is important to this process. The letters in the word stand for See, Explain, and Evaluate.

Taylor: That’s right. When we observe anything, or when we’re in an interaction, all kinds of thoughts come to our mind: I think he’s this, I think he’s that; I thought this about what he said. What we don’t realize is, the vast majority of those thoughts are coming from our unconscious. That’s the “Explain” and “Evaluate.”

My unconscious takes what I see, what’s objective, and then its job is, “I’ve got to pass up an explanation to that conscious mind. Here’s how I’m going to explain what I think I see.” The unconscious goes even further. It says, “Now I’ve got to place a judgment on it. Here’s the judgment of what I think I see.”

“Learning how to filter and shift helps us to become more intentional, and match our impact with that good intent.”

Those filters are operating, doing all this in my unconscious, but those filters are created by my past experiences. In my interaction with you, my brain is giving me all kinds of explanations and judgments about you. But I have no idea if what my filters are telling me matches what your filters are telling you.

You’ve got it coming from the other side [as well]. Your filters are telling you all kinds of things about me. And then we can get into a misunderstanding. What we don’t realize when we’re in those misunderstandings is, many times those are filter fights.

Knowledge@Wharton: How often are some of those situations just misunderstandings?

Taylor: I think it’s the vast majority of the time. I’ve asked this question to probably tens of thousands of people — folks in the audience during my presentations, and I see head-nods in agreement — “Do you think the vast majority of us enter the workplace every day with positive intent?”

If we all are entering the workforce and want to have positive relationships, we want to contribute, and we’ve got that positive intent, then why do we have misunderstandings? The reason we have misunderstandings is because we aren’t able to match that positive intent with an equally positive impact.

When it gets down to it, what is it that really matters? I could have the best of intentions. Let’s say I’m presenting, and I’ve got my stiletto heels on, which I never do when I present. I accidentally step on someone’s foot, in the front row with my stilettos. Their reaction is going to be a scream, probably, right?

I’m going to say, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t mean to hurt you! I’m so sorry.” Now, what’s going to actually determine whether that person was hurt or not? Is it going to be the scream, or my ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean to’? We know it’s the impact that decides.

Going back to our interactions, it’s our impact on others that decides our effectiveness, not our intent. I can have the best of intentions, and then I get into a misunderstanding with someone, and then [conclude that] it must be their fault [or] they were disrespectful. I don’t say, “Wait a second. How is my unconscious really controlling that situation? How did that determine how I interacted? What do I need to do to have a better impact the next go-around?”

Knowledge@Wharton: You mention that a lot of times this happens because people aren’t taught to be able to deal with and understand others. Why do you think that’s the case? And how are you able to handle that?

Taylor: Exactly. Why aren’t we taught? I would say that the reason why most of us aren’t taught this competence is because we believe a number of myths.

One is we believe that just being comfortable with differences means that I’m going to be competent. Think about it, in what other areas does comfort equal competence? I am completely comfortable holding my high school clarinet that I used to play. But you do not want to hear me try to play it. I am nowhere near competent.

The other myth is, “I’m exposed to all kinds of differences. I’ve got differences all around me. My best friend is gay. My next-door neighbor is black. My mom has lived with a disability all of her life. I get this stuff.” But in what other area would we say that exposure equals competence? If that were the case, we wouldn’t need schools. We’d just have, say, a math guru, and everybody would send their kids to be exposed to the math guru for an hour, and they’re going to know math. We know that that’s not true in [cases where skills are a competence to be learned].

The reality is that we just don’t see [bias shifting] as a competence [that needs to be developed]. But we need to start seeing it that way.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also talk about how some things seem so obvious to some people. Yet, we have problems believing that it could be that easy.

Taylor: What we sometimes do is [point out] something that is obvious — an obvious difference, in particular. But we [may be] uncomfortable talking about it.

[This is something that happens] all the time, with my husband and me. I’m a white woman. My husband is a black man. There are times when we’re in all-white groups, except for my husband. Somebody will say, “Sara, which one’s your husband?” If I’ve got the one black guy in a sea of white folks, wouldn’t it be obvious to just say — as I’m trying to point him out — “the black guy?”

“We’ve got to learn how to treat others as they want to be treated, which is the Platinum Rule.”

But, many times, folks just feel very uncomfortable with that, because we [get many social] messages that we shouldn’t talk about those differences. So, lots of times, when I say that, I’ll get very uncomfortable responses. Particularly, what I get most is a nervous laughter. I know what they’re thinking: “Oh my gosh, Sara just said ‘black.’ She called her husband that. She doesn’t even know that she’s not supposed to say that.”

There, it’s our unconscious telling us, “Oh, that’s a topic you should avoid.” But then, what happens if we’re avoiding those topics — when do we get into them? If we’re uncomfortable talking about differences, especially the easy-to-see differences, then how are we ever going to be comfortable in our workplace, interacting with those differences? And also, talking about the differences that are even more difficult to see?

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you feel we can effect change in these areas with more understanding relationships in our personal lives, and hopefully that will carry over into our business life, where some of these issues apply as well?

Taylor: Yes, I hear that all the time. I work with people, mainly in the workplace. What I hear from them is, “Oh my gosh, you just solved an issue that I’ve been struggling with for 20 years with my husband.” Or, “I just want to bring my wife in,” or, “I just want to bring my partner in, my kids in, so they can hear this.” So, yes, it definitely plays out both at home and at work.

The second piece is that this is something that can be developed. There are some people who might naturally be nicer people. There are some people who are naturally more extroverted, versus introverted. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a competence that we can develop.

To that point, let me see if you can guess — we plot this out — the five stages of development. They’re progressive; you have to move through them to get to the most developed stage. In the most developed stage, we can see the full complexity of differences that are around us, and we can respond to them effectively. So, what’s your guess? How many of us, do you think, operate in that stage?

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m not sure what the percentage is, but I would say it’s got to be way up there.

Taylor: That’s what most of us think. But guess what? I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer here, but it’s only 2.5%. Only 2.5% are operating in the highest stage of effectiveness, where we can see the full complexity [of someone else], and respond to it. The good news is we can develop this competence.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think is the best way to try to do that? That seems like it would be a large task to undertake.

Taylor: The good news is, it isn’t. It used to be, though. To get folks to that last stage, it takes about 40 hours of intentional development work. During that work, we show people all kinds of differences, from all kinds of different groups. Eventually, what will happen is, you’ll develop [that competence].

We did that for years, and what I started to see is that the process did work, and people developed to that last stage. But, as we did it, I started to hear and see patterns of people making these shift points. And so, I said, what if we just taught those shift points? At the time, I called them ‘key developmental shifts,’ or things that you needed in order to develop [these skills.]

There are six of those. I started to teach just those key developmental shifts. With that, we were able to bring the 40-hour process down to nine hours. That’s the process we talk about in Filter Shift. It starts with myself, understanding my own filters, then understanding the filters of others, and finally, understanding how I shift my filters to approach a situation more effectively.

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