As I read about Trayvon Martin and recent tragic events related to his death I find myself thinking about the way we see each other. Every aspect of our lives is shaped by the way in which we perceive the people around us, particularly those we interact with personally.
An inclination to hold a perspective possibly at the expense of alternative perspectives. This is one definition of bias. Every human being comes to an interaction with another human being with a way of looking at the world, a lens or a set of filters. We all engage in biased thinking. We usually move through the day unconsciously acting as if the way in which we see things is truth or fact. However very little we experience is fact. Most experiences are a set of conclusions we draw from viewing the world through our personal lens. Our lens or filters continuously develop from every experience we have had leading up to this moment. No two individuals have had an identical set of experiences and therefore no two people have the same lens. This unique processing of patterns in life is, in part, what makes us human…as is our ability to become conscious of our thinking patterns.
The ability to organize our world into meaningful patterns that we recognize and use to move through life is sometimes called a schema. Schemas allow us to sort through vast amounts of information. Most of us understand that information comes rushing at us at a pace that seems to increase every moment. Human beings use schemas to create efficiency in making sense of a constant stream of input. This phenomenal human trait, however, has a downside to it. We sometimes categorize , or make assumptions, about people and things based on incomplete information or broad generalizations. This is true in the way we see each other as humans whether we are talking about differences in gender, the color of our skin, the way we talk, the way we look, where we went to college, if we went to college, and so much more. We unconsciously draw broad conclusions from small amounts of information which is heavily influenced by our past experiences.
Leaders have a special responsibility to continuously become more aware of their personal mental schemas. We all should regularly challenge ourselves to become more aware of scenarios where we may be acting on incorrect or incomplete information out of habit or because it is faster and easier then validating our current perspective. This is especially true about the people who work for us. Do we challenge ourselves to see them as individuals with a unique potential? Do we interact with them seeking to learn what makes them unique?
We cannot change who we are as humans, nor would we be able to function without our ability to process and categorize information. We can however pay attention to our thoughts and actions, to our decision making patterns and styles, to our mental models. If we learn nothing else from the tragedy of Trayvon, may we be reminded that we may see each other with a limited perspective that blocks out other potentially valid perspectives that could alter our experience of the world. Challenge yourself today to seek out ideas, opinions, viewpoints and people that represent something different from your every day experience. This is one way to keep your mental models fresh and your filters clear.