Biases aren’t easy to admit, but we all have them. They influence what we choose to read, what we listen to, and how we socialize with one another. However, though developing biases is a fact of life, when it comes to bettering ourselves as people and professionals, it is important to identify them and actively work to challenge their influence. Otherwise, they can easily hold us – and potentially others – back.
Networking is a great place to start. We can only grow by widening our net, and doing so also helps bring more diverse voices into play that may have otherwise been dismissed from meaningful conversations.
But before you venture outside your bubble, you first have to think critically about how that bubble may have formed.
Look in the Mirror
We tend to gravitate toward people who look like us – for plenty of reasons. Partly because our brains tell us that if someone resembles our own appearance, that we must have a lot in common with them. Therefore, it is likely that we will get along.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. People are complex, and the judgements we instinctively assign others based on how we view them rarely stack up to reality.
That being said, there is some truth to this.
Because of biases, our visible identity traits hold a great deal of influence over our lived experiences, which are solid grounds for relating to another person.
For example, women can reasonably assume that other women have faced gender-based discrimination in their careers, and therefore might anticipate a closer connection with another female (vs. a male) given their likelihood of validating these experiences.
Important to note: it is perfectly okay to surround yourself with people to whom you can relate, especially in an effort to create a sense of community where one might be lacking (i.e., an org with underrepresented people of color, or lacking queer representation).
But, by taking time to consider how we view ourselves (through a variety of lenses: race, gender, nationality, age, experience…) we can start to zoom out and see how these elements of our own identities might be informing – or limiting – our networking efforts.
By leaning too far to “the safe side” (the side that resembles ourselves) we miss out on key learning opportunities, putting a stopper on our growth.
Audit Your Influencing Perspectives
Once you’ve outlined possible unconscious biases (based on what you hold to be true about yourself), it’s time to start looking around you.
Think about the type of people you network with regularly. Are there common themes you recognize amongst those you seek out for guidance, support, or insights?
While identifying the traits that may be closest to your own can be relatively easy, you might also find you are gravitating toward perspectives that reflect a broader stereotype of “success.”
Because corporate leadership is largely dominated by white men, the image of what it means to “thrive” as a professional often assumes the same shape, despite research that clearly paints women as more effective leaders.
It’s simple: what we see most often, we assume to be true. And in this case, we most often see men being promoted and/or sitting at the helm of the C-Suite.
But the real truth is: success looks different on everyone, and success as a society relies on empowering diverse perspectives to be a part of more influential exchanges and conversations.
No pressure, but this all starts with you – taking a chance and seeking out people who you may have never approached, simply to listen to what makes them unique. And by sharing your own story with that person in turn, one day you may each open doors for the other.
Reach Outside of Your Bubble
Networking outside of your “comfort zone” isn’t an easy feat. Most often, new connections tend to stem from current members of our network or through additions to our team, which we can’t always rely on to be bias-free.
Cold emailing someone for a coffee chat or Zoom intro can be intimidating, but when we limit ourselves to only contacting people we have “ins” with, we put ourselves at higher risk of developing “typified” networks.
Remember: that first intro is zero-stakes. If you go into it expecting the other person to move mountains for you, you’re networking wrong.
It’s all about developing authentic relationships with a variety of people in a variety of positions and places, which begins with a simple “Hi! I’m [X]. Would love to connect with you and learn about the work you’re doing. Do you have 20 minutes to spare?”
But it falls on you to be intentional about to whom you send those intros.
Challenge yourself to listen to those who might have differing opinions, experiences, or outlooks to share. Especially as a leadership asset, having the diligence and patience to hear others out with an open mind will only make you a more well-rounded, empathetic, and intuitive bar-setter.
Bonus: when we diversify and strengthen our networks, we are in a better position to help bring visibility to others who might have a tougher time advancing their careers due to larger systemic barriers.
As the saying goes: it’s all about who you know… and the more we work on “knowing” a broader range of people, the better our organizations and our communities will be for it.