Bronwyn Williams
by on 11 March, 2020

When I first began researching and speaking on unconscious bias, I found this Chinese proverb insightful: A fish is the last one to know what water is. Water is an unquestioned environment for the fish. As are our unconscious biases. We seriously sabotage our ability to be productive when we first, lack awareness of our own unconscious bias, second are reluctant to identify what our biases may be and third are unwilling to change when confronted with our biases.  

When I first went to Nauru, I was confronted with my unconscious biases of latent racism and white superiority. I saw what my water was. That insight and the subsequent changes I made in my thinking and behaviour were of utmost importance when I returned to Nauru in a full-time capacity as the religious liaison officer. In this role I was responsible for meeting the needs of the various faith groups within the asylum seeker cohort and liaising with some of the Nauruan churches as they came to grips with the potential influx of Muslims into their majority Christian society. If I hadn’t been willing to look at my own biases and address them, I would have been unsuccessful in this role and perhaps caused a great deal of unintentional harm.

The first way we sabotage our own productivity is by being unaware that the water of unconscious bias exists. Biases form in childhood and are shaped by our culture, family, religion and other external life events. However, many people say, “That’s just the way I am” and choose not to acknowledge that “the way they are” is a result of the various types of water they’ve swum in during their lifetime. Being unaware of our own water confines us within certain parameters and allows us to only grow so far. Our ability to be productive is limited and we wonder why others are achieving the things we want to while we seem unable to do the same.

We further sabotage our own productivity, once we’re aware that “water” exists, by refusing to examine our own water for the unconscious biases that exist there. It is one thing to cognitively acknowledge that biases exist, and even to admit that we may have biases. It is whole other journey to identify what our particular biases are, and then to see what impact they have on our personal productivity.

Once we’re aware that water exists, and we’ve identified what our own unconscious biases are (and this is an ongoing exercise) then we get to choose. We can choose to stay a fish, swimming in our water of bias or we can choose to be like a tadpole, grow into a frog and leave the water behind (or at least choose another pond!) Bias is a choice. At first, bias is unconscious, and we make choices based on parameters we’re unaware of. However, once we’ve been made aware of our biases, they are no longer unconscious and we must make an intentional decision about how we proceed. We can choose to stay with the comfortable water we’ve swum in all our lives. Or we can be brave – and it does take courage – and confront our biases and see how they’re impacting our decision-making and productivity. Staying in our water limits us to a certain way of thinking and behaving. Changing can seem a huge task. However, just as a tadpole makes its transformation slowly and almost imperceptibly, so we can make incremental changes to the way we think and act. In doing so we increase our ability to be effective, efficient and productive.

It’s so easy to sabotage our own productivity by being unaware that the water of unconscious bias exists, by neglecting to identify our own biases and then by refusing to change ponds. Bias is a choice. Choosing to remain in the water of unconscious bias interferes with our decision-making, limits our growth and sabotages our productivity. Choosing to address our biases opens up new possibilities and leads to unimagined growth. What will you choose – fish or frog?



Bronwyn Williams is an author and international speaker. As a disrupter of unconscious bias, she identifies corporate and personal stories that impact growth, cohesion and productivity. From her own diverse experience across more than 30 years in the education and not-for-profit sectors, Bron has found that as individuals and corporations identify their guiding stories, they can either rewrite those stories or find the superpowers hidden in them.

Bronwyn helps boards in C-suite by raising awareness of unconscious bias, identifying foundational and guiding stories, and developing strategies for growth, cohesion and productivity.


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