Structural bias at the buffet

Published by Peter on

One of my clients, an executive, was complaining that his managers didn’t communicate with each other and wasted too much time sending every little decision up the chain of command for approval.

As he described the situation, I began to see a structural bias at the heart of his problem, but he kept insisting there was no structural bias. After a little more back-and-forth, I realized he couldn’t see the problem because he was personalizing the word bias.

That is, he kept tripping over the idea that bias is synonymous with prejudice, which he associated with bad people. He insisted that his managers weren’t bigots. (They aren’t.)

Certainly, structural bias can be created intentionally by bad people with nefarious intent. Redlining is one example.

In many cases, though, structural bias gets created by well-intentioned people who don’t understand the disparate impacts on other populations. They simply don’t see how their personal biases, assumptions, and privileges can result in biased structures.

Personal biases are those views, beliefs, preferences, and attitudes that stem from our culture, background, upbringing, faith, and education. They’re what shape our worldview.

Everyone has personal bias. Personal bias is what makes us each unique. It’s not bad; it simply is.

When you’re self-aware, you understand how your personal biases create and shape your experience of the world and other people. Self-awareness allows you to better see how your actions affect other people.

An example of structural bias versus personal bias

When was the last time you went to a buffet? Did they put all the salad dressings with the salad-related foods? My guess is they did. I’ve never seen it otherwise, though I cannot claim to be a buffet expert.

Which salad dressing you like is a personal bias. You can get ranch and your friend can get Italian, and you can agree not to judge each other.

Vegetables my son grew as part of a high school project

Placing the dressings with the salad, however, is an example of structural bias. You don’t go in today and see the dressing next to the lettuce, and tomorrow it’s beside the ice cream. To most of us, this seems obvious and logical. It’s been done that way for generations.

What if your friend is allergic to lettuce, but they like dressing on their pork chop?

While you’re blissfully dousing your iceberg with ranch, your friend has to trek over to the pork chops, then come all the way back to a section they feel uncomfortable in just to get that Italian dressing.

The structural bias of housing the dressings with the lettuce forces them to go out of their way and do more work to get what they want, even though they paid the same amount as you did.

The privilege of being mainstream

Now imagine your friend getting mad about it. Not just mad, but indignant. Their indignation turns to outrage. They complain to the manager. They threaten to organize a protest, or even sue the buffet.

On its face, that’s a comical overreaction, right? It’s just salad dressing. On a pork chop. (Weird!) And it’s just a tiny little bit of extra work for them… and they still get what they want in the end. What’s the big deal?

Besides, the buffet has to put the dressing somewhere. They can’t put everything next to everything. It’s not physically possible or logistically reasonable.

All of this may be entirely true. (Except the “weird” bit. That’s personal bias seeping in. Don’t let it.)

None of that changes fact that the way the system is set up creates a disparate impact on people who like dressing but not salad.

It makes their life slightly more difficult than yours. It may even stop them from getting what they want. Sometimes, your friend may just have the pork chop without the dressing. It’s just too much work, or they don’t have time for it today.

Even though they paid for their buffet just like you paid for yours.

Image generated with Adobe Express generative AI.
“salad dressing next to a pork chop at a buffet”

The difficulty of becoming aware of structural bias

I’ve chosen a patently ridiculous example on purpose. But bear with me for one final bit of this thought exercise.

You’ve watched your friend go slightly nuts over something that seems trivial. It affects only a few people. It’s a fringe case.

You now have a choice: You can dismiss your friend as a reactionary extremist and find all the reasons to deny that any structural bias exists.

Or you can observe that a structural bias does indeed exist and then contemplate how it might be affecting people who are unlike you.

I strongly recommend the latter. Stepping back from judgment and opening your mind is the way to creating more empathy and understanding. It’s also the only way to finding solutions.

But opening one’s mind can also sometimes be very uncomfortable. It may force you to admit that you’ve benefited from a privilege you didn’t realize you had.

For some people, that’s so hard that they refuse to do it. Instead, they commit themselves to justifying the existing structural bias and discrediting the people who are negatively affected by it.

We don’t have to look far to find real-world examples of this… and it’s not limited to one demographic, political party, or gender.

If I assigned homework, I would tell you to look for three examples of structural bias as you go through your day today. It could be something as big as the electoral college, or something as small as a faucet aligned for right-handed people.

10% of people have one wet sleeve

So what now?

Becoming aware of a structural bias doesn’t mean it’s your responsibility to fix it. Not all inequities can be easily fixed. Not every fight is your fight. That’s okay. Just being actively aware of the problem and understanding how it affects others can allow you to find other ways to mitigate the effects whenever you can.

Sometimes even the most well-intentioned fixes create their own problems. You could force the buffet to change, but without a deep understanding of all aspects of the restaurant business, the clientele, and food safety, you may unintentionally create different problems for other people.

(Side note: That’s also a reason you should be very selective when choosing a professional coach to work with. You want a certified expert with plenty of perspective and experience, not someone who is well-meaning but poorly informed or untrained.)

And what about my client?

Oh yeah, the client I talked about at the beginning of this post.

I didn’t use the salad dressing analogy with him. We were much more direct and on-topic.

This leader, who had recently come in to take over the organization, was frustrated that decisions were being made far too slowly, and managers did not feel empowered to make even small decisions without sending everything up the command chain for approval.

It led to wasted time and even some missed client opportunities. It also led to other problems with hoarding of information, lack of trust, and reluctance to take risks.

The structural bias behind all this turned out to be an overdeveloped institutionalized respect for subject matter experts. The organization’s culture celebrated people who had the answers that no one else knew, and it was not seen as okay to say “I don’t know” in a meeting.

This made managers feel like they had to have more knowledge and expertise than the team members they managed, which meant they didn’t pass along important context to their subordinates. In turn, this forced the subordinates to have to go to their manager for answers.

This is not a quick-fix problem; it’s cultural. Because it’s deeply rooted in trust, power, and personal relevance, the long-tenured staff will take some time to believe in the new leader and his approach.

These are good people. They care about doing a good job. They care about developing their staff, and progressing in their own careers. But they’re part of a system that influences their behavior as much as they influence the system.

Now that my client is aware of this structural bias, he can stop blaming the individual managers for their previously inexplicable behavior. He can instead focus on making changes to the culture, reinforcing the behaviors he expects, and building the trust necessary to achieve his vision for the organization.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills and the effectiveness of their teams. I also help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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