Many people love to quote Albert Einstein and his definition of “insanity,” which is: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” But he never said that. What Einstein actually said was, “We cannot solve our problems, with the same thinking we used when we created them.” What this means is that, as humans, we have a natural tendency to develop routines and patterns of behavior, but when we find ourselves in trouble, we must not slide back into the same patterns of behavior and routines that got us there in the first place.

According to hundreds of research articles, we have been trying to “solve” discrimination for decades without changing our conversations or behaviors. It hasn’t worked so far, and if you believe Einstein, a pretty intelligent fellow, it is not going to work. We need a “wholly shift” in our conversations on bias, diversity, racism, discrimination and privilege. We need a shift that helps us understand the brain science (i.e., psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, linguistics) that got us to where we are. Opening this conversation is just the beginning of creating a safer and inclusive work environment.

According to research from McKinsey, more diverse corporations are 36% more likely to outperform their competitors financially. This compelling business case is a strong motivator for many organizations, but after the video of the murder of George Floyd circled the globe, a catalyst was added to the conversation. With millions of people participating in marches and rallies around the world, many people began having conversations they’ve never had before, asking questions they’ve never considered before and sharing stories they’ve never shared before. Recognizing the strong desire for dialogue, many businesses began focusing significant time and resources on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training.

Unfortunately, many diversity training programs are ineffective because they fail to open the conversation in such a way that acknowledges the largess of the problem. Additionally, they fail to create an environment where everyone feels safe to be candid. Many of these programs have very clear judgments on which opinions and ideas are right and which are wrong. It is counterproductive to create an “inclusion” program and not find ways to include all voices and opinions. Furthermore, there are many terms fundamental to the conversation which are unfortunately misunderstood. These misunderstandings lead many employees to believe that the requirement to attend the training is akin to an accusation of discrimination. To completely change the conversation, we first need to create mutual understanding of what it is we’re talking about.

What is Bias?

If we are going to solve gigantic problems rooted in centuries of history, it is a critical first step to come to some foundational understanding of the brain science that motivates our behavior. To shift the conversation, we need to shift our foundational beliefs. I ask folks all across the country for their definition of the word “bias” and I am routinely met with answers like, “Bias equals racism/sexism/homophobia/ageism.” The problem with this understanding of bias is two-fold: First, it’s inaccurate. Second, it leads people down an unproductive path. “I am a good person. Bias equals racism. Racism is bad. If you say I need training on ‘bias’ you are saying that I’m a bad person.’” So people will walk into a training with a healthy dose of resentment before the course even starts.

If we are going to have a new conversation, we need to start with this baseline fact: Bias is not bad.

Bias is not bad, necessarily. Bias can lead to all of the “-isms,” which are bad, but bias by itself is a psychology term that is defined as a, “strong preconceived notion about someone or something based on information that we have, perceive to have, or lack. These preconceptions are mental shortcuts that the human brain produces to help it make sense of what it is seeing.” Bias is a tool that the brain uses to organize the overwhelmingly large amount of information coming in. In fact, bias is a tool that we have used to survive as a species. Have you ever avoided eating unknown red berries on a hike? Bias. Have you ever had a momentary feeling of alert when a bird’s shadow moved over you? Bias. Bias isn’t bad, and it’s often unconscious. But if left unchecked, some biases can lead to bad behaviors, decisions or outcomes.

Remove Judgement to Accelerate Dialogue

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are constantly judging the world around us. We judge people, situations and even ourselves. Judgments like “right” versus “wrong” or “good” versus “bad” accompany many of our thoughts throughout the day, and many times they guide our reactions and behaviors. When dealing with people, we have a natural tendency to look at problems and judge a person’s character for causing the problem. When people do the same thing to us, it often sparks a defensive reaction. Their judgement of our character sparks defensive behavior. Similarly, our judgement of their character is likely to spark defensive behavior.

If the goal of discussing DEI is to increase dialogue in your organization, you must start by helping people temporarily suspend judgement. Absent judgement, we are better able to be candid with our own feelings, opinions, experiences and biases as well as be radically curious with the feelings, opinions, experiences and biases of others. It is from a place of curiosity and candor that we can fully understand the problem and make significant steps forward to resolving it.

If you want to lead your team or organization through meaningful work in diversity, inclusion, bias and privilege, it is essential that you first work to create an inclusive and diverse learning environment that welcomes everyone into dialogue.