The End Of Assumption: How Genuine Curiosity Can Affect Bias

Building a culture of workplace trust can start with YOU. Yes, you have the ability to leverage your newly-acknowledged Unconscious Bias to build stronger relationships on your team, within your department, and even among the folks sitting on either side of you at your cubical. If each of us instead remained islands unto ourselves, we would become convinced that our struggles and challenges are unique, believing that no one else could possibly understand where we’re coming from. Now that you understand each of us has a distinctive terroir, you can recognize that you ARE an island indeed, but not an isolated one. When you identify and accept your biases, values and motivations, you can finally engage effectively with colleagues. Let’s break this down socially and scientifically.

The Science of Curiosity

Building those constructive workplace relationships requires a specific course of action. Only when you consider a colleague’s unique background and temperament can common ground be revealed, shrinking the distance that separates you socially. Start by asking yourself the question, “What do I know about my coworker?” Forget about what you assume due to observation, and focus on what you know via an informal exchange of ideas. What do you have in common? Did you graduate from the same college? Do you both love to hike or have a passion for pets? Being curious about your colleague by asking questions and sharing a detail or two about yourself is a measured and intentional attempt to build trust.

The results are backed up by a little brain science. The rostral prefrontal cortex (RPFC), the part of the brain that says “She’s like me” becomes engaged to allow the amygdala (or emotional brain) to settle down. When this is accomplished, you can learn more about what makes your teammate tick. The benefits are not only immediate, but they come full-circle: The more you learn, the more you understand. The more you understand, the more you trust. The more you trust, the more you learn!

Once there is a thread of connection, you can choose to glimpse life (and your coworker) from a different set of eyes, free of judgment. Remember that every one of us lives in our own reality, comprised of the feelings, thoughts and actions we accept and digest. Your coworker’s realities are based on their own feelings, almost exclusively. What are their specific feelings? What do they think? Dare to put yourself into their shoes to discover how they see a situation, and a whole new reality is unveiled— the real reality!

Collaborative Engagement vs Golf!

A more fascinating element of unconscious bias is the stigma attached. “Biased? Not me!” Remember: It’s those who deny their own biases who aren’t able to “play well with others”. Our instinct is to suppress or change the bias, but by recognizing it instead, we can leverage it. Getting curious about your colleagues and asking questions to understand where they’re coming from can add an extension to the conversation. This is the key to social growth, and reveals to you what their aspirations are and where they feel they’re headed.

Imagine, if you will, possessing the ability to listen fully, think creatively and share aspirations and common challenges effortlessly. These are the essential components of collaborative work! It sounds idyllic, but in actuality, it’s entirely practical. Since each of us sees things from the eyes of different operating systems, we need to engage in course correction. When our thoughts differ, our actions are affected and the outcome you were expecting from me, for instance, may differ from what I produce.

Use the golf analogy to illustrate this further. Think of your brain’s trajectory as that of a golf ball. The first emotion you feel (whether of anger, fear or excitement) equals the moment the 1-driver strikes the ball. The flight that ball takes are the thoughts your brain has after the initial emotion. A feeling of fear sees the ball slice off toward a sand trap, while a feeling of excitement finds the ball headed straight toward the green. Where the ball lands equals the action we take based on the emotion. Would you rather be pulling a putter or a sand wedge from your golf bag?

Asking The RIGHT Questions.

The most reliable way to experience another’s reality is to avoid assuming you understand their point of view. Always ask questions to see more clearly through their lens. Instead of implying to them, “You must be angry because of how Josephine cut you off in that meeting”, ask them, “How did you feel when Josephine cut you off during the meeting?” Practicing this discipline will afford you a glimpse into someone’s psyche, where you can collect vulnerabilities and strengths like they were data points and trends. The follow-up is to believe the person is speaking their truth. As you absorb their reply, avoid judgment. Easy to say, tough to do. But it will prepare you supremely for the topic of my next article: Handling tough conversations.