We were a full day into a three day trek into the Ecuadorian jungle. The conditions were rough but that’s exactly what my friend and I had signed up for. A real authentic jungle experience. The humidity was suffocating. The swarms of mosquitoes were unrelenting. The bush so dense, you had to cut through it with a hatchet just to clear a walking path. And the mud was like quicksand, sometimes swallowing you up to mid-thigh. But it was all par for course in the jungle. I was prepared for just about anything on this little adventure. Well, almost anything…
It happened so quickly and without warning. Montezuma’s Revenge had suddenly taken my body hostage. I have no idea what exactly I ate or drank but something foreign had invaded my gut and caused a terrible reaction, the likes of which I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemies. I quickly took care of business and rejoined the group. But not even five minutes would pass until I had to relieve myself again. And again. And again. Mono, our jungle guide who actually lived in the jungle, seeing my desperate situation, turned to me and asked (in Spanish but translated here): “Would you like me to make you a medicine for your stomach? We take the bark from this tree and mix it with that plant and some tree sap and that should cure you.” I responded in a somewhat condescending tone: “Thanks Mono. But we have modern medicine in the United States to deal with this. I’ll be just fine.” And with that I popped a couple Pepto-Bismol pills. But to no avail. I continued to expel all of my insides and by now I was starting to become pretty dehydrated and weak. I was miserable. Once again, Mono approached me: “I hate to see you like this. Won’t you please try this medicine? It’s how we usually cure this problem in the jungle.” But I didn’t budge from my stubborn ways. “No thanks Mono. That was just an over-the-counter medicine but we have even stronger and more potent prescription drugs that should definitely take care of this.” And with that I took some Cipro (an antibiotic) which we had fortunately brought along for emergencies just like this. That should have done the trick. But it didn’t. Worse and worse I grew until the point where I became so lightheaded and in such pain that I couldn’t move another step. I lied down, closed my eyes and prayed for relief.
A few minutes later my friend sat down by my side with a drink in his hand. It looked disgusting and had a repugnant smell to it. He insisted I take it. “Glenn, I asked Mono to make that medicine for you. I know – it probably won’t work. If nothing else worked, why would this. I get it. But you have nothing to lose at this point. You can’t possibly get any worse. Please give it a try.” I was too weak and exhausted to argue. So I drank the entire concoction despite my seemingly better judgement. And within about five minutes, I was 100% cured. Just like that. As quickly as this virus had entered my body, it completely vanished never to return. I was of course relieved. And shocked.
Bias (noun): Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Yes, I was clearly very biased that day. Biased on the virtues of modern medicine. Biased about the knowledge of some jungle boy without any formal education. We all have our biases. We acquire them from our parents, teachers, friends, TV shows, movies, books, social media and a host of other information sources. To suggest there are ways to completely remove them would be foolish. But over the course of my life, I have learned some strategies that can help keep them in check. I have found these techniques to be helpful both in professional and personal contexts.
- Try to identify your biases going into any situation. Just knowing that you perceive reality through colored lenses is half the battle. And know that this bias will somehow cloud your judgment. This isn’t easy but try to remove yourself from your own body, look at your thoughts a little more objectively from the outside and see how your predispositions may be affecting your views. Once you’re more aware of why you see things a certain way, you’re in a better position to understand your blind spots and make corrections.
- Play devil’s advocate with yourself. You’ve always wanted to be an actor so here’s your chance. Role play the other side. If you’re a good enough actor, you’ll start to see a different perspective emerge. You know you deserve that raise and the reasons are crystal clear in your mind. But your boss may not see it that way. So pretend you’re the boss explaining to yourself why it’s not going to happen this year. What areas of growth might she point out that are holding you back? Or let’s say you’re going into a board meeting to present a new marketing strategy. It’s a big pivot with a lot at stake. You know you’re way closer to your market than any of your Board members. But perhaps you’re so close that you may not see the forest for the trees. How might you challenge your own set of assumptions if you were one of those investors sitting on the opposite side of the table? They bring a different set of experiences to the table. What might they see that you don’t see?
- Take the time to really listen to the other person. There’s a world of difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound. There’s no effort involved. It’s a very passive activity. Listening, on the other hand, is actually paying close attention and trying to understand. It’s much more of a conscious act that requires concentration and intent. Only by actively listening can you start to understand and appreciate the other side. If you find yourself thinking about your rebuttal or your next point before the other person has finished speaking, you’re hearing but not listening. If you’re picturing yourself sipping an ice cold daiquiri on the beach just days away from your much needed vacation while they’re still making their point, you might be hearing but you’re definitely not listening. You need to be 100% in the moment. Don’t just hear the words. Listen to what they’re trying to say.
- Have someone you trust and who can be completely honest with you weigh in. Don’t turn to you friend or colleague who is always agreeable and just wants to say what he thinks you want to hear. That won’t help. Turn to someone who may have a different perspective or can at least force you to see an alternative point of view. Have them point out your biases if you can’t see them yourself. This is one of the reasons I’m a big advocate of having an outside advisor when you’re running a company. You need that counterbalance. Or perhaps it’s a mentor helping you grow professionally as you work your way up the corporate ladder. Whoever it is, make sure they’re a straight shooter and be sure you’ve got thick skin. Having someone point out your misperceptions and prejudices isn’t easy on the ego.
Like anything in life, change won’t happen overnight. It takes time. And it takes practice. I’ve been practicing these strategies for years and I know I’m still far from perfect. Sometimes my biases are so strong and ingrained that nothing I do can help offset them. But I’d like to think that over the years I’ve made some progress. I’ve become just a little more open-minded and a little more self-aware. In turn, that has allowed me to become a better leader, a better advisor, a better husband, a better father, a better friend and a better person.