Surfacing Bias for Better Career Coaching
By David Hosmer
Unconscious biases exist in our coaching practices. While biases are normal, we should not accept them as such. As career practitioners, our unconscious biases might influence us in several ways, such as:
- Our body language toward (or away from) those who are like and unlike ourselves;
- Our assumptions about the body language of others;
- Who we listen to, what we choose to hear, and how we respond while interacting with our clients and prospects;
- The conclusions we derive about which careers are appropriate for our clients;
- Our decisions to work, or not to work, with certain clients.
To help others we must first look inward. Our biases are rooted in complex filters, including background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. They are not limited to physical characteristics (e.g., skin/hair color, age, gender). Our brains react when our involvement with others remind us of our past favorable and unfavorable life experiences, such as, “We go to the same church!” or “He has the same annoying accent as my former professor.” Bias occurs when our brains make rapid judgments of people and situations, like employers who make hiring decisions based on first impressions.
Here are some ways to surface and manage our biases:
Mindfulness is “The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Applying mindfulness in meetings with clients can move us to new openness with clients. Mindfulness dissipates the clutter of bias that gets in the way of truly listening and being present. However, it is difficult to manage bias in the moment of action. Consciously identify situations in advance and consider purposeful thought and approaches that will prevent acting on bias. Even after a first meeting with a client ask yourself, “How will I approach the next meeting to practice open-mindedness?”
Give yourself permission to be human. Working with clients can have challenges. Perhaps you have one that you cannot connect with. A trusted coach colleague who asks good questions, listens, and provides insights can be invaluable. For example, acknowledging your frustration about a client who wants a reward after each accomplishment might reveal your bias as a baby boomer in perceiving that a younger client’s generation must receive trophies. Neither is right nor wrong. Thinking aloud can surface unconscious obstacles to connecting with a client.
Coach Beyond Your Comfort Zone
We have an outstanding opportunity for versatility, learning, and richness in our profession if we move beyond our comfort zone. Still, we have a natural affinity toward those most like ourselves. We gain specialized knowledge and confidence by working with our selected populations, such as ex-military, students, outplaced employees, older clients in transition, etc. However, we must be careful not to become too deeply entrenched at the exclusivity of others who are outside our comfort zones.
By coaching diverse clients, we can enrich our experiences and work practices. For example, a career coach working exclusively with college educated students might decide to seek new clients without college education. The coach could reach out to colleagues experienced with with non-degreed clients to garner new resources and insights. Similarly, a coach might find that they always select older male clients and might begin taking on female, transgender, and younger clients.
Diversity comprises many dimensions that can afford opportunities in new realms, i.e., culture, race, age, personality style, education levels, and physical/mental challenges. Ask yourself, “What do I and this person have in common?” The revelations of ‘likeness’ will move both parties into ‘comfort space.’
Ask yourself tough questions. What is my concern about working with Stacy? Is it merely a hunch or is it reality-based that Stacy is not motivated? What behaviors or other evidence do I have to conclude this? What are Stacy’s strengths? Is there something about her background, perspectives or education that is so different from mine that makes me uncomfortable? Am I open-minded enough to challenge my discomfort working with this transgender client?
Questions are important in another context. We must be careful not to assume what others need. Consider a person in a wheelchair going up a hill. We might assume they need help and push them up the hill. What would serve them better is to get out of their way so they can maneuver. The ‘client’ knows what they need more so than us. Similarly, an international client who speaks average English, might not be concerned about how to speak better English for interviews as we might assume. Instead, her agenda might be how to deal with her anxiety for interviews in her native language. Learning techniques for handling behavioral interview questions and other preparation techniques might be more what she needs. Giving advice before asking questions implies that we know what is best for the client. Ask yourself, “Am I assuming all people need English?”, “Does broken English spark my opinion about people?”, “How do I feel about immigrants who might be seeking work in the U.S.?”
Watch Your Mind’s Language
Our minds are filled with experiences, situations and people, etc. Stop and consider the words you use to think about people. In your mind do you use generalizations such as “People like them . . . ”, or “They are not loyal like us.” or “Those people. . . ” Suppose you have a visceral response to a female client who repeatedly interrupts. You think to yourself, “Young people these days are know-it-alls.” Such language, even if only in your mind hints bias- conscious or unconscious. It could be a bias about millennials or women. If the same behavior came from a man or older person, would it have the same impact on you? By noting the phrases you associate with the feeling, you can identify the bias.
We are well equipped to challenge our underlying assumptions and stereotypes. Experienced coaches are practiced in withholding judgement, asking, listening, and creative problem-solving. It is up to us to provide an environment where clients feel we are working in their best interest—one in which we manage ourselves first. By being courageous enough to look biases in the eyes, hopefully we will realize new worlds and maybe greater value for new and different clients.
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David Hosmer’s experience spans 21 years as a coach, talent development director and OD consultant at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Charles River Laboratories, Private Healthcare Systems, Wyeth, and Fleet. Consulting clients include HULT International, MIT, and Harvard Medical School. He holds an Ed. M. from Harvard, B. A. Psychology from Boston University, CPLP and CCM. His has published in OD Practitioner, ATD, Practicing OD, Training Journal. He has coauthored two books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org