Confronting Your Unconscious Bias

July 31, 2020

If you are human, you are biased. “It is physically impossible for the human brain to function without bias,” says Valerie Alexander, an author and speaker covering workplace topics.

In her session, “Outsmarting Unconscious Bias,” at the REvive! From Crisis Coast 2 Coast virtual conference Thursday, the former CEO of a tech startup discussed how people’s innate prejudice can affect real estate transactions and dealings with colleagues and contribute to illegal discrimination across the industry.

All of us, she emphasizes, have an automatic default to a biased reaction to the unexpected. We default to our own norm. Your norm is not neutral, universal, or the baseline. Your baseline is not the norm that everyone has to go with.

“Your norm is how you were raised and also based on government policies and media images we’ve been fed all our lives,” Alexander says. “We have the power to adjust our normal.”

Due to evolution, when you encounter someone who's not in your tribe, your brain starts to produce cortisol because of stress. No one in our lifetime can change that reaction. But we can change who we see in our tribe, she says. It takes effort. You can begin to see everyone in the human race as in your tribe, she states. You can work on yourself, and eventually not have that cortisol reaction.

For instance, when you encounter someone unexpectedly, it’s a moment of shock, she says. For example, if you are meeting with someone you assumed was a dishwasher and they say they are a doctor, the cortisol begins hitting your bloodstream. “That’s OK. But then use that response to adjust your expectations and change your definition of the norm so you aren’t taken by surprise the next time,” she says.

Here are some steps Alexander offered that real estate organizations and brokerages can use to help promote inclusion in their own offices and equal treatment of all prospects and clients: 

  • Amplify the voices of those who aren’t being heard. This can start with not letting people get interrupted in meetings. Direct the conversation back to them so they can be heard.
  • Mentor people who don’t look like you. Make sure you are mentoring everyone equitably. Women are often mentored with a focus on boosting confidence and presenting themselves better, while the mentors of white men highlight the skills valuable to climbing the ladder. But leaders need to mentor everyone to promote business skills and acumen.
  • Stress clear policies that apply to everyone. Discuss policies fully with all members of your team. Agents should assure clients that they will present all the homes in their price range that fit their criteria.
  • Expand your network. Brokers should aim to bring in agents of all backgrounds. Office diversity is an important business goal.
  • Connect with those not in your tribe. When you go to a banquet and sit down, do you connect with everyone at the table or only a few? Do you talk to the person clearing the table or the person who parked your car?

To access a range of resources to help you recommit to upholding fair housing laws, including a recent video to help REALTORS® avoid implicit bias in business interactions, visit nar.realtor/fairhousing.