Becoming less prejudiced and — in the popular word of the moment, more “woke” — is a process that nearly everyone goes through. Social stereotypes are powerful no matter what one’s own background, and it takes years to learn to see the people behind them.
For instance, a man may never think of himself as sexist but believe a female boss is “bossy” and a male boss is “assertive”? Managers who would never see themselves as racists might turn down a minority applicant because of worries that he will be a “bad cultural fit,” which is usually code for “different than us.”
For the recipient this can all sting, which erodes trust and loyalty — two key elements for strong teams.
There’s no shame in trying to fix ourselves. Learning to be sensitive to diverse groups of people is an ongoing project even for good people. We carry the baggage of cultural stereotypes even into the workplace. To be better workers— to be better employees and better colleagues and better humans—we need to learn how to let these weights go.
Mindfulness alters our biases by teaching us to let go
Thankfully, these impressions are not set in stone. There’s a study that shows us how we can use mindfulness as an empowering tool to reduce the biases in how we speak and address people.
What is mindfulness? It’s just the practice to paying attention to our own thoughts, while putting them in their place. In mindfulness, we recognize what we are thinking but we just let the ideas and sentences float by without giving them power.
Here’s how it can work: Researchers asked 84 Emory University students to describe adult cartoons drawn in different scenarios. They were asked to think of these cartoons as friends or enemies.
Participants in the immersive group were told to “become absorbed in the vivid details of thoughts” of the cartoons while participants in the mindfulness group were told to “observe their thoughts as [a] fleeting mental state.”
What did the immersive participants do? They immediately saw the “friendly” cartoons as part of their personal clique. Those that immersed themselves in the minds of the friendly cartoon characters took sides and spoke judgmentally about the offenses of the cartoon character’s enemies.
Meanwhile, participants who were told to pay mindful attention to their biases would still positively judge their cartoon friends — but not as much as those in the immersive group.
Overall, following the instruction to be mindful significantly reduced prejudices.
The upshot: mindfulness gives us the perspective and distance to remember that no one should be defined by one moment or first impression. When we’re reminded of that, we can evaluate our co-workers more objectively.