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Take a deep breath: meditation and mindfulness can help you tackle unconscious bias



Have you ever been given a shoulder massage in the office by your male boss, who in turn calls you and your other female colleagues “his babes”? This was my experience some years ago. He and I had multiple conversations about his behaviour, as did other female colleagues. We would point out his latest micro-aggression, he would say how sincerely sorry he was and that he hadn’t meant any offence, and then a couple of weeks later another equally demeaning behaviour would pop up.


It seems Government Ministers have tuned in to some research that resonates with my experience. They have announced their intention to abandon unconscious bias training and are encouraging others in the public sector to do the same, because of a lack of evidence that it reduces prejudice and discrimination.


What we know about personality and neuroscience, is that my manager’s beliefs, values and attitudes about women were deeply ingrained in the neural connections that he had formed in his early life experiences. They had formed unconsciously and become his “knowledge” about women and how to relate to them. This is the information his brain would retrieve and use to respond each time he encountered a woman, and the science indicates he had very little choice about that response (Kahneman, 2011). His unconscious bias was baked-in.


But if the headlines about Government abandoning the training are to be taken on face value, then they are missing the whole story. Awareness is just the first step in tackling unconscious bias and knowing that it exists and even how it got there in the first place isn’t enough to break mental habits. If unconscious bias is like the pie that’s baked-in, and what we need is a new and different kind of pie, then it appears the Government training only went as far as showing us half of the ingredients list for the new recipe.


Without either of us being conscious of it, when I spoke to my manager about how his behaviour was making me feel, I was inviting him to see more of the recipe for an alternative way of behaving. Because we learn by interacting with our world and the new perspectives this brings, I was implicitly opening up an opportunity for him to learn - to challenge his values, beliefs and attitudes and create a new habit-response to women in the workplace.


As it turns out, he didn’t accept my invitation. Even if he saw the recipe, he chose not to pay attention to it. His learning seemed to be very narrow, as in: don’t massage Eva’s shoulders because she gets annoyed by it. So he updated his mental models a tiny bit, and avoided that particular behaviour with me, but the learning didn’t go any deeper and new micro-aggressions emerged.

What deep learning requires is critical reflexivity. The ability to interact at a meaningful level with our environment, including people, and question our existing knowledge from a range of angles. The recipe for shifting unconscious bias has to involve caring enough about something to really listen to other people’s stories, to ask how what we hear relates to what we already “know” and to decide whether to set aside what we thought we knew and create a new mental model - to bake-in a new neural pathway that replaces the old one entirely.


This takes effort in itself, but it’s not the whole story. How do we get to even bypass our automatic habits and notice that our knowledge needs updating, let alone care enough to invest time engaging with the world to figure out what to replace it with? This is where mindfulness can help.


"Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity"


(Oxford Mindfulness Centre)


Science has provided robust evidence that mindfulness can help us to focus, concentrate and be more present in the moment (Goleman & Davidson, 2017). Instead of rushing through life in a distracted state of information overload and multi-tasking, it gives us time to notice what’s happening and to think. My own experience of mindfulness is that when I am fully present, I encounter a space in time between what I perceive and how I respond - just a micro-moment to choose how to respond. And even if I miss the moment to respond because what I notice is something new and unfamiliar, incongruent or contradictory, then I have the option to follow up later.


And if that follow up takes effort, as in critical reflexivity, it seems that mindfulness can feed our motivation to make the effort for relational issues like unconscious bias. This only works if we have worked to strengthen our mindfulness muscle through meditation, and a certain kind of meditation at that. Research shows that meditating on “loving kindness” - towards ourselves and others - triggers the parental caretaking circuitry in our brains (Goleman & Davidson, 2017). It follows that people who meditate on loving kindness are more likely to take the time to listen well to others’ stories and make the effort to question how what they hear might relate to their own knowledge and behaviour and to consider change at a deep and transformational level. To bake to a new recipe.

Even if we have come this far, it’s not guaranteed that old habits can be erased this “easily”. It takes practice - or rather mindfulness and practice together. Conscious micro-experiments require focus and awareness about whether we are responding to old triggers in new ways or not, and repeated correction until the new circuitry is in place. The new recipe is mastered and we don’t need to refer to the instructions anymore.

So I agree with Government Ministers that unconscious bias training might not be getting the results we all need. But the headline shouldn’t be about giving up on something, it should be about inviting a broader, systems view of behaviour; and a more mindful, self-aware and caring workplace.


Questions to consider


If you are concerned about the ineffectiveness of your existing unconscious bias training but you are still determined to tackle the impact these biases have, how can you bring more of a systems view of behaviour and learning to your change programme?


What would it take for you to create a more mindful and kind workplace?


If you would like to know more about our approaches to transforming Change Management, contact eva@evalutioncoach.com or david@k3cubed.com

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