Past experience is often invaluable when it comes to making decisions on many aspects of our daily lives – particularly when those decisions are complex and based on uncertain information. In fact, research has shown that learning from experience actually changes the circuitry in our brains so that we can quickly categorise what we are seeing and make a decision or carry out appropriate actions.

But learning from experience can be a double-edged sword. We view the past through numerous filters that distort our perceptions. As a result, our interpretations of experience are biased – and the judgments and decisions we base on those interpretations can be misguided. Yet we believe we have gained correct insights from our own experience and from the behavior and accounts of other people.

In the workplace, this ‘unconscious bias’ can often conflict with our conscious beliefs and values to act as a barrier to a truly diverse and inclusive working environment. It’s why I often start my corporate presentations by asking if we have any racist, ageist, sexist homophobes in the room. This opening line certainly gets attention. But I quickly follow it up with: “Because if it’s just me, we can always talk about me for the session!”

You Can Only Reduce It

The message is that even me – the Diversity Diva who has worked in this world for over 20 years – STILL carries bias and STILL has to be present and deal with it every day. You cannot remove it – you can only reduce it. It’s like cleaning your kitchen – you leave it pristine and somehow when you pop in again there is another smudge, a cup of breadcrumbs in a tiny pile, and off you go again. The predictions we make about people will run riot if we don’t stay awake and keep on cleaning the kitchen!

Another way to look at it is to think about your brain like a garden with many paths. A garden maintenance person visits daily and has to prune a little and sweep a few leaves. There are some paths you use daily, so they don’t need to bother with them. Others are used rarely, if at all. If they are left alone, they are likely to grow over to the point that using them is hard work – AWARE work.

In other words, when you meet someone, the brain has a tendency to send you down the paths most travelled. This person has blue hair (zoom) therefore they will be a party person and constantly late (zoom, zoom). Or this person looks professional (zoom) with polished shoes (zoom) therefore they will be clever (zoom) and make great decisions (zoom).

Take a Pause

What we all need to do is take a pause every time we see a human – even one we know. Stop, breathe and force the garden maintenance person to cut you at least two new paths:

  1. What could you know?
  2. What should you know?

They are different questions, but both divert you from your regular pathway and send you via a longer (and, yes, tougher) route. Asking your brain to delve deeper and look for more information is a great start. At the very least it gives you a chance to alter assumptions and biases. At best it succeeds.

The past is a place of reference – not a place of residency. We just need reminding – and this poem does just that:

Sometimes the Wolf Cries Girl

by srwpoetry

sometimes the hero stumbles

and falls right off of the page,

sometimes the princess rolls her eyes

and says “i don’t want to be saved.”

sometimes the dragon needs rescuing

and the villain aches to be helped,

sometimes, in the darkness,

the lost boy finds himself.

sometimes the prince is cunning,

and not at all what he seemed,

sometimes the witch’s kindness

shows it’s she who deserves to be queen.

sometimes we shouldn’t define people

by someone else’s point of view –

just because it’s what we’ve been told,

doesn’t make it true.


  • Angela Peacock

    Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion

    PDT Global, part of Affirmity

    Angela Peacock has spent the last 20 years of her career working across the global business sector – from Asia to North America, Europe and South Africa – developing and supporting companies and leaders with their corporate strategies and leadership development. During the last 10 years she and her team have specialized in creating the sorts of inclusive environments where everyone can be heard and excel. She is passionate about getting organizations to understand the link between the creation of inclusion, the achievement of tangible business results and the need to link it back to the people agenda. Angela has a strong reputation in the global inclusion arena and has worked with boards and C-suites across many firms from State Street to Microsoft, Fidelity to Accenture, Lloyds of London to the National Basketball Association. She is an inspiring speaker – using storytelling, hard facts and her history to ensure her messages hit home and are remembered long after the workshop has ended.