All Articles Leadership Workforce From bias to equity: Challenging our filter-driven thoughts and decisions

From bias to equity: Challenging our filter-driven thoughts and decisions

We all have filters that can prevent us from seeing the world in an unbiased way, but Sara Taylor offers some tools to challenge that unconscious bias.

5 min read



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You are a successful leader in a successful organization. You believe you make clear and unbiased decisions, ensuring equal treatment and equal opportunity for all involved. But what if you’re not making your own decisions, at least not the way you think you are? If not you, then who? Actually, the question is not who but what, and the answer is your unconscious filters.

What exactly does that mean? Answer this question: What’s your next thought? Do you know? Not the thought you’re having right now, but the next one — the one you haven’t thought about yet. If you’re being honest, you don’t know. None of us do.

It’s because that thought is created in our unconscious milliseconds before it’s passed to our conscious mind. By the time that happens, that thought feels like a fact when, in reality, it’s been generated by a complex process that operates entirely outside of our conscious perception, controlled by our unconscious filters. And until we can better understand and challenge the decisions our filters are making for us, well, it’s not really us making those decisions.

What are filters?

Filters are automatic mechanisms operating in our unconscious. They take in millions of pieces of information every second, completely outside of our conscious awareness. They use that information to explain and evaluate the people and situations around us to, finally, produce our conscious thoughts. Again, all without our conscious awareness.

Our filters create our thoughts, which, in turn, create our actions. Because our filters are so strong and automatic, our conscious thoughts become a passive, rubber-stamp-approval step between our filters and our actions.

Regardless of whether our actions are effective or not, whether they are biased or not, whether our decisions are equitable or not, they all originate with our filters. The challenge, then, is to check and challenge our filters with an active conscious process.

The reality is that the vast majority of us — nearly 85% — cannot engage in that process.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is anyone can develop that ability and, in turn, begin making less biased, more truly equitable decisions.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz!” This is how Cheryl described her ability to begin seeing filters.

“I used to think, I’m this competent, highly successful executive making lots of important decisions every day. Of course, I’m seeing everything I need to see. But in actuality, I was operating like in those first scenes of The Wizard of Oz in grainy black and white. Now I see it in high-definition and full technicolor! Those details and deep and rich contrasts that I am only now seeing have been there all along. I was missing so much, which means I wasn’t the best leader I could be.”

Cultural competence

Cheryl and the rest of her executive team, leading a large health care organization, had been through an intentional process to develop their cultural competence and create more significant equity in their organization.

There are six progressively more effective stages of cultural competence development. Most of us, on our own, have only developed to one of the first three where stuck in the passive conscious process, our filters are in full control.

To develop to the latter three stages, we practice the active conscious process to check and challenge our filters. As we progress through the stages, we first become aware of and acknowledge the power of our filters, then develop to identify the filters of others without judgment and finally, shift our approach to create the most effective and equitable actions.

Like the majority of individuals across the globe, Cheryl and her colleagues had developed only to the third, ineffective stage when they began their development process. With the best of intentions, they were oblivious to their filter-driven decisions and filter-driven behaviors creating an unconscious, filter-driven culture in the organization.

Even with the best of intentions, this is how bias and inequity dominate our organizations, our processes, policies and environments.

Not only did Cheryl and her colleagues develop to the more effective stages as individuals, but they also began to identify and shift the less effective, less equitable filter-driven decisions they had made previously, from policies to marketing approaches to M&A processes. They had increased their ability to match the positive intent they had always had with an equally positive impact to be more inclusive, effective and equitable.

Unfortunately, there is no magical yellow brick road to the technicolor world of better decisions and greater equity. However, we now have the exact tools we need to challenge bias and directly contribute to greater equity.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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