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The Nonprofit Manager’s Guide to Implicit Bias

Updated: May 19, 2019

I recently attended The Management Center’s “Managing for Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Results.” Besides being in a room that was at least 80% white women, it was humbling to look at common barriers to equity and inclusion in the workplace. Spoiler alert: it’s Personal, it’s Structural, and it’s Systemic.

First the Personal. As managers — well, to be honest, as humans — our brains love to take shortcuts in evaluating what’s in front of us. This happens in an instant. Once beliefs are established, we tend to skip gathering new data and generalize our beliefs about a person or group even more. In fact, we may unconsciously collect evidence to back up these beliefs. Welcome to the spiral of implicit bias!

As managers, implicit bias shows up in 3 ways:

1. The “like me” filter — At the start of last week’s training, the facilitator asked “Who are your people?” I immediately thought of white, East Coast, Jewish women. It’s no coincidence that I am a white, East Coast, Jewish woman. As people managers, we may overly attribute sameness to those who share our identities, and otherness to those who don’t.

2. The “I like you” filter — As a recruiter, I am constantly “falling in like” with people I interview. It can be challenging to pull back from “OMG, I like this person so much and want to get coffee with them everyday and be BFFs” and check my “I like you” bias. Think about the people you manage. How do you treat the ones that you personally like more?

3. The “dominant culture” filter — There’s a whole mess of research that the more a person fits with the dominant culture, the more successful we assume they are. In the nonprofit sector, this tendency is perpetually reinforced by the hiring and promotion of white leaders, who in turn set the “standard” for nonprofit leadership.

The good news is that we can notice and stop the patterns of implicit bias. Ernst & Young developed a really simple tool for this called P.T.R., or Preferences, Traditions, and Requirements. Allow me to demonstrate:

Jane is a manager at a college access nonprofit and leads a team of college advisors. She tasks one member of her team, Jim, with putting together a session for a group of high school seniors, but without any explicit directions. Jane loves PowerPoint (preferences) and has always created presentations in PowerPoint (tradition.) Jim creates a presentation that was completely slide-free. Jim thought the requirements were to create a session of his choosing, but he wasn’t privy to Jane’s implicit expectation that it must be PowerPoint. What’s more, Jane assumes that Jim isn’t cut out for creating presentations, as he clearly did not hit the mark. P.T.R. Boom!

Every manager has the ability to “make the implicit explicit” (Full credit to the Management Center for this phrase. I love it and use it all the time now!) Once we do that, it’s no longer a test of mind-reading and assumptions, which doesn’t help any team get results. Once we do that, we can also start to see the structural and systemic patterns lurking beneath the surface. Structurally, is your organization open to different types of presentation formats? Does your organization live and die by PowerPoint alone? Systemically, do we lift up “professional” forms of communication (e.g. PowerPoint) and put down other ways people share ideas?

If you’re still reading this post after I said PowerPoint 10x, what can you do to make the implicit explicit? What filters influence how you manage individuals on your team, and what differences show up across lines of color? To begin to answer these questions requires starting with the Personal. By noticing where our automatic biases show up, we are able to slow down the process, question our assumptions, and see our people for who they really are.

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