Book Review: Overcoming Bias (by Jana/Freeman)

The enthusiasm about neuroscientific evidence about how our brain deals with differences continues to be high. As much as D&I practitioners appreciate the additional knowledge about barriers to making the most of difference, they are looking for robust ways to mitigate Unconscious Biases. A new book offers help.

‘Building authentic relationship across differences’ is not only the subtitle of the latest book about Unconscious Biases on our shelf, it also summarises the approach of this reflection-focused self-learning tool. The book uses exercises, games and activities to help readers explore biases for and by themselves in order to understand it better and eventually become more proactive about it. The authors phrase their understanding as follows: “By overcoming [bias], we mean to control, conquer, and prevail over your bias.” While this is probably too high of an ambition to be actually achieved, the book certainly serves the purpose of facilitating individual development in the area of bias.

A human baseline to start from

Right at the beginning, Jana & Freeman make the important point that bias as such is something very natural and a fundamental human tendency. While many D&I experts say this, they tend to convey the notion that the world would be better without bias. This book stresses that bias has served an important purpose in the survival of the human race and should (insofar) be acknowledged as something that can be of value. The authors present bias as something similar to preference. While we agree to some extent, we also feel the need to explore different forms of bias further than this. As a starting point, however, the book explains in an effective way

  • that and why it is difficult to acknowledge your own biases while it appears relatively easy to identify it in other people
  • that biases often result in dynamics that are not aligned with our (stated) intentions
  • that some our values or beliefs (that contribute to biases) were actually created in our youth but never re-examined.

Overall, the book starts of from important challenges that emerge as results of unchecked biases.

Implicit Associations and Stereotypes

The first two chapters cover some fundamental forms of bias, namely associations and stereotypes, and how this can easily lead to (false) evaluations or pre-judgements. A number of personal stories and examples show the reader how implicit associations can create blind spots and guide us towards decisions that are not in line with our goals. The book also mentions positive bias as something that can get in our way in dealing with differences in an effective way, e.g. when we overreact to criticism. Some of the valuable recommendations include that everyone should start with themselves and reflect frequent or recurring experiences and strong triggers (that might be related).

In- & Out-Groups and Privilege

The following chapters cover in and out-group dynamics along with the related concept of privilege. Suggested paradigm shift include and understanding of one’s own values, to see others as individuals rather than members of certain groups and to become a Devil’s Advocate to explore different perspectives by leaving your comfort zone and getting to understand other cultural norms. The chapters use many effective examples that are all spot-on relevant and that also relate quite clearly and strongly to the U.S. environment (e.g. racial dynamics, class, small towns).

Building blocks to expand your capabilities

The following chapters focus on concrete steps that can help everyone to understand their own point of departure in the journey. Simple, effective exercise assist in exploring the diversity of your private or professional environment. Simple, effective tipps assist in expanding your range and the way you listen and talk to others.

Clearly recommended as a first step

‘Overcoming Bias’ provides a good overview of relevant concepts and dynamics and it does so without the wide-spread expert language. This makes the book accessible and usable for a large audience. However, the approach and style is very consistent with its US origin, particularly regarding the extensive use of story-telling or personal examples, the nature of many examples and some of the recommendations (especially those that relate to language, everyday situations, or minority groups).

A large benefit of the book is that it focuses on acknowledging and exploring dynamics relating to bias, and subsequently facilitates a personal development process. In the last chapter, the book also mentions that biases in systems should be a next item to consider. This actually refers to some more of the concrete changes that we need to be aiming for in order to overcome bias in a holistic way. In that respect, the book does not fully achieve its mission ‘[to] provide you with everything you need to understand bias’, but this would not be feasible on 140 pages in the first place.

‘Overcoming Bias’ is pleasant to read, emphasises positive aspects and assets rather than issues and challenges, and it offers quality, clarity and effectiveness regarding the mix of facts and illustrations. It is clearly recommended to read, and equally clearly not only for D&I practitioners.

Tiffany Jana, Matthew Freeman (01 Nov 2016): Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 144 pages

Paperback print edition ISBN 978-1-62656-725-2