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The Connection Between Double-loop Learning and Unconscious Bias

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A couple of years ago, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield wrote an interesting article for The New York Times titled “Secret Ingredient for Success.” The article starts with a story about the early struggles of David Chang, the now successful owner of the Momofuku restaurant group, among a laundry list of other impressive ventures and accolades.

Sweeney and Gosfield write: “Mr. Chang could have blamed someone else for his troubles, or worked harder (though available evidence suggests that might not have been possible) or he could have made minor tweaks to the menu. Instead he looked inward and subjected himself to brutal self-assessment.”

Now bear with us. There is an important tie-in to the concept of unconscious bias coming.

The authors write:

During the 1970s, Chris Argyris, a business theorist at Harvard Business School, began to research what happens to organizations and people, like Mr. Chang, when they find obstacles in their paths.

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.

Wait for it …

LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we — like Mr. Chang — question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

Related: Unconscious Bias Impacts Singles in the Workplace

There it is. The authors are speaking specifically about how an objective, no-holds-barred self-reflection can help spur individuals and organizations on to great success through self-improvement. But isn’t there an obvious parallel here with overcoming unconscious bias and striving for inclusion in the workplace? Through double-loop learning, we “question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions.” It requires that we “honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information.”

Unconscious bias is difficult to root out because we don’t know it’s happening. We may be doing little things every single day, or even every hour, that are based at least in part on unconscious bias. Now, we’re certainly not suggesting that it is necessary or even recommended to take a double-loop learning approach to every thought or action. Obviously that would be bring your cognitive throughput to a standstill and probably drive you crazy. However, double-loop thinking could be a great tool for periodic introspection at the individual and corporate level to think critically about how unconscious bias may be influencing your actions and policies. The next step is summoning the courage to act on that information.

Give it a shot. Take a double-loop learning introspective approach to identifying your unconscious biases in 2018 and beyond.

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