A Framework for Interrupting Bias – Within Oneself, With Another, and Amongst Others


“Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to face the same direction at once…they rely on social patterns that begin as the habit of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.”

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (New York:Random House Publishing Group: 2012)

In our first article, we highlighted five common management practices where bias can operate, often as a matter of course. Identifying the issues and seeing the negative patterns is an important first step; acting against those patterns of bias is where real progress occurs. 

In this article, we’re proposing a framework for people leaders (and all team members) that can help you reflect on and act against bias across three levels (with yourself, with another, with others) through three practices: be curious, be accountable, be vulnerable. We’ll provide specific examples of what these practices can look like across each level.

Why worry about interrupting bias? 
Biases are self-limiting. They are formed from repetitive thought patterns that become ingrained in us and are used to take shortcuts rather than explorations. If we go about our work lives making critical decisions that are strongly leaning on unchecked biases, we are missing out on opportunities to innovate, to improve ourselves, to challenge ourselves to new ways of thinking and understanding people and challenges. Biases often serve to shore up our egos, our sense of ‘what is true for me.’

People leaders (the inspiring kind) cannot get far with selfish orientations; they must be invested in others as much as/more than themselves. In being other-invested, we recognize that differences of others are not aberrations to minimize or remove, but rather are meaningful distinctions we should recognize, explore, and leverage for the benefit of our teams and work.

Bias for Business Sake
In business contexts, we often rationalize biases through decisions in the name of “good business.” As an example, the pay-for-performance philosophy was dominant for decades in American business settings as the given model for compensation. Particularly in the wake of contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter, this “business standard” is being questioned and complicated for how it tends to replicate and accentuate bias and disparate impact to marginalized people. Although we moved to role-based compensation a couple years ago at Credit Karma, biases can still be misconstrued as “business best practices” in other ways. 

An important part of a people leader’s job is to inspect foregone conclusions and “business sense” for roots in bias. This inspection can be applied to the thoughts we tell ourselves, our interactions with others, and the broader practices we subscribe to in organizations

Interrupting Bias Within Yourself

What curiosity looks like…

Tools like the Implicit Association Test can be a place to start understanding more about your people-biases and learned associations around race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. Once we acknowledge where we have biases, we can begin to disrupt the pattern matching we’ve built up from these biases by introducing new, atypical information. 

What accountability looks like…

Acknowledge that you have biases. As Credit Karma employees have discussed in Unconscious Bias trainings with Nadia Jones of Culture Cipher, bias is a normal phenomenon and most biases are harmless (think flavor preferences, the perfect indoor or outdoor temperatures). Although a bias against blue drinks can save you time at the grocery store, biases about ‘types of people’ keep us from building dynamic understandings of individuals. 

What vulnerability looks like…

Talk with your family and friends about how you are trying to understand and disrupt your biases. Share why this matters to you and what is hard about it. By being open about self-reflection, you help yourself and others know that this is an important social practice and not simply a personal one.

Interrupting Bias With a Team Member

When a coworker (whether direct report, peer, or leader) expresses different ideas or feelings in a conversation that push against your strong beliefs, it is common to respond with defensive or closed responses. Defensive responses can often look like a restatement with emphasis on intent (“well, what I meant was/what I was trying to say was”) or a counter-explanation (“the issue with that is/what you aren’t considering is”). Closed responses tend to interrupt the flow of the conversation and can be as simple as a confused and perhaps indignant “What?” that can often put the other person into their own defensive posture. 

What curiosity looks like…

1. When you catch yourself having either a defensive or closed response in a conversation, pause, take a breath, and shift into curiosity about what the person is sharing. Ask open questions like “what makes you say that?” or “can you tell me more?” to better understand what informs their perspective and listen actively to their responses. You may even consider signaling that you’re having a response that you want to overcome — “I am having a reaction, but can you share more so I can better understand your perspective and my own reaction?” 

2. In exchanges where a coworker feels a part of their identity is being questioned, dismissed, or unconsidered and is willing to talk about it in that moment, the feedback we receive from that person can feel very personal, and we can feel our integrity or intent are misunderstood or questioned. With ongoing practice, try to depersonalize your experience of feedback in these moments and recognize that your team member’s emotions are often a response to a series of experiences they’ve had around their identity. Both they and you are navigating systemic issues in that moment.

3. If in a conversation you sense that your words or actions are impacting the other and you aren’t clear why, pause, check in, and give options. Consider “Hey, I have the sense that something I am saying/doing is impacting you differently than I expected; would you like to talk about this now or would you prefer we take a break and revisit later?” While it is important to flip into curiosity, it is just as important to recognize that the moment may be too charged for your coworker to respond to your curiosity. Sometimes, stepping away from the moment with a commitment to return to it after a break is the best way to take a time-out while conveying your willingness to repair.

What accountability looks like…

Seeking feedback from others around your biases helps you ‘stay honest’ in your effort to interrupt your biases. Establish an open and confidential dialogue with a colleague with different life experiences, perspectives, or identities. Consult with them for alternate perspectives when you are working through interpersonal challenges. 

In addition to your bias accountability buddy, it’s important to take your education on contemporary and historical issues into your own hands. Create a small learning group of people who you identify with and hold each other accountable for educating yourselves about systemic issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia and how they affect each of us.

What vulnerability looks like…

Human relationships deepen through vulnerability and work relationships are not exempt from this. Share your learning from self-reflection, your initial internal response to a situation or conversation, and alternative views you’re considering with your team member. Humbly sharing acknowledgement of your challenges and missteps is a powerful way to disrupt bias in your interactions with another person.

Interrupting Bias With Your Team

As a people leader, helping your team interrupt bias can both help each team member experience inclusion and belonging and have a multiplicative effect of changing biased behavior within the organization.

Provide your team with a shared vocabulary to normalize and ease conversations about bias (in whatever form) and learning at large. The comfort, stretch, panic framework is a great way to help people signal where they are in conversations and it assumes that operating from your comfort zone all the time yields little learning. As you and your team members practice stretching and returning to comfort in your conversations together, the comfort zone expands over time and growth occurs. As a leader, help yourself, your team members, and your whole team to stretch regularly out of static comfort zones and into learning space, while recognizing and dialing back from panic moments.

What curiosity looks like…

Pay attention to dynamics in group settings. In many organizations, there are structural assumptions that ‘getting things done’ requires more doing than thinking. Realistically, this is not always true and there are times when necessary dialogue will open up around a group’s biases in how they ‘do work.’ In those moments, pay attention to the group dynamics, as there will be some team members who want to ‘get back to work’ and prematurely close a necessary conversation around institutional or group biases. 

What accountability looks like…

When conflict or challenges arise around a group’s bias in solving a thorny work issue (like recurrent system breaks or bugs, for example), acknowledge that questions around the group’s biases are likely being raised. Help keep this space open rather than closing it. Rather than singling individual team members out for either raising challenges or for trying to head them off, acknowledge the dynamic in the room around possible group bias and ask others to continue engaging in the conversation with curiosity.  

What vulnerability looks like…

As a people leader, power dynamics and your biases can interact to have significant impact on the priorities, development, and evaluation of your team. This also means that you have the power to shift power dynamics and reset negative norms. In group settings, a fact of power dynamics is that you as a leader will sometimes be directly addressed or challenged around your own biases. Remember: model curiosity and vulnerability in these moments, and be mindful not to hold any one person accountable for educating you or explaining themselves in front of a group…that’s a blessing-curse reserved for you alone as a leader.

About the Authors

Jared Hoffman

Jared Hoffman, Senior Leadership Development Partner, partners across Credit Karma to support and grow leadership capabilities through learning programs and coaching. He draws on his experience from a range of People Operations roles in tech and higher education.

Ash Coleman

Ash Coleman, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, has formalized Credit Karma’s D&I efforts by building programs and community engagement at scale. In her career, Ash has gone from being a professional chef to leading Quality Engineering teams. She created her own business in Quality and D&I, and continues to share her expertise regularly at tech and D&I conferences and forums.

Andy Jenkins

Andy Jenkins, Senior Director of Engineering, leads the Credit Karma Tax and Savings engineering teams. In 2016, he led the establishment of Credit Karma's Charlotte office, where teams now span engineering, marketing, member support, product, talent, and more.