Everyone’s brain is tricked into having biased thoughts at one time or another. We organize information into categories based on what we see, are told, and directly experience. When we do not have exhaustive information and generalize personal experiences, our beliefs may not accurately reflect the totality of reality.
Having worked in social service organizations and education for over 13 years, I am continually shocked when I discover other leaders’ beliefs about the people who are actively engaged in these systems. Leaders, who make crucial decisions about how resources will be used to meet community needs, often have biased and even prejudiced beliefs about people who live in poverty and people of color.
I once attended a day-long character education workshop for educators where one of the presenters, who represented a leadership education organization, talked about values-based leadership. He also repeatedly stated that it is important to teach this to children from impoverished communities because when they go home they are in an environment where there are no values. Unfortunately, this is a myth that I have often seen taught to educators and social service providers. I couldn’t help but wonder if this gentleman had ever been in one of those communities or how many parents and children he really took the time to get to know. If you are working to alleviate poverty or to provide a service to people who are impoverished, do you think living in the condition of poverty is the result of a deficit of character? Carefully examine your attitudes and beliefs toward others – coworkers, subordinates, volunteers, interns, customers, program participants, vendors, and colleagues – to uncover and understand your bias.
Forget about what you think you know so that you can emerge fearless into the realm of what is true and good. See things for what they are, not for what you think they are or want them to be. Approach every moment, person, and circumstance with a new mind. Base your understanding of each individual person that you meet on what that person reveals to you rather than your accumulated knowledge of people you find to be similar in one way or another. Live in the present moment rather than the past and be open to all of the possibilities that life has to offer.
If, through a process of deep reflection and examination, you discover that you do hold a biased or prejudiced belief, forgive yourself to overcome shame and grief. Recognize that it is healthy to change your beliefs in response to receiving new information or understanding; this is personal growth.
When we are driving a car to a specific destination, we usually have several choices about how to get there. Sometimes we choose a shortcut because it will get us to our destination faster. As our brain develops, taking too many shortcuts out of convenience shortchanges our learning processes and maturation. As you have new interpersonal and life experiences, allow your brain to form new neurological routes. Take the scenic route once in a while and gather new ideas and insights to inform your decisions for those times when it is necessary to take a shortcut.
By living in the present and continually developing the basis of our understanding on complex information, the possibilities for growth and change emerge. When we truly understand the intricacies of humanity, our ability to envision possibilities and work toward an idealized future is enhanced.