By Debbie Muir – Great Traits –
Mark and I were recently at a conference and heard an esteemed social psychologist from Harvard, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, speak about unconscious bias. It was a fascinating presentation referring to biases that we are unaware of. They happen automatically, and are completely out of our control. In this presentation, Dr. Banaji made the case that not all biases are bad; it is just your preference of one thing over another. One of the most poignant lessons I left with was that the way we discriminate is very subtle. Often, it isn’t about who we exclude but, rather, who we help. It reminded me of a time when I had to show the international judges how biased they were and how it was hurting the progress of the sport.
For me, as a coach, awareness is huge. I am always challenging myself NOT to have selective awareness, to only notice things that reinforce what I already know, am comfortable with, or that supports my current beliefs.
I am acutely aware that part of being successful in a performance-driven culture is being open to seeing thing differently in order to find ways to improve.
I was coaching the Canadian women’s synchronized swimming team through their most triumphant years on the world podium, and when you’re winning everything, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the judging is great. Then, I went to coach the Australian synchronized swimming team. They were ranked last in the world, so I went from coaching the best in the world to the worst. That’s when I realized something had to be done to help the judges see how their unconscious bias was leading them to maintain the status quo and limit the global competitiveness of the sport.
It was slow going when I first started working with the Australians; however, as time went on we started making some huge breakthroughs. We put systems and processes in place to support a serious training program and our routines and technical skills improved dramatically.
But in spite of our marked advances, we kept coming in last. It was really frustrating. Why was this happening? Eventually I had an a-ha moment. It was the judges fault—they had selective awareness and an unconscious bias towards the best teams in the world.
When they marked the teams from the top of the field, they looked at them from the perspective of what they were doing right so they could justify the high marks. When they marked the bottom half, they looked at them from the perspective of what they were doing wrong to justify the low marks. And they were doing this without even realizing it! How could I lead these judges to understand what they were doing so they could see us in a different light?
In the judges meeting at the end of the next competition I asked them what they noticed that Australia did well. Even though it was really frowned upon to question the judges, I really had nothing to lose. Sure enough, there was dead silence. They hadn’t noticed a thing! But the question shifted their awareness and knowing I would be asking that question again at the next competition, they were ready to answer it. They looked at us from the perspective of noticing what we did well as opposed to what we did poorly. It totally changed their outlook and that’s when we made a huge breakthrough, making it to the finals in the team event, a first ever for Australia.
In the process we were also able to influence the judges in a way that helped them become better and helped improve the sport internationally.
Watching the Olympics in Rio, we see all kinds of sports with judging, and it will be interesting to observe if any unconscious biases play a part in the final results.
Take this as a challenge to begin to reflect on your own thinking and your own selective awareness.
Are there things holding you back? Look around you, what unconscious biases are happening with those around you?
We challenge you to find ways to influence others in ways that will help them be better.