READ the May 2021 issue of our magazine: EMPOWERING 'EXPERIENCE'
Creating neologistic words and phrases is a strong skill in the HR profession. And the speed at which we are creating such new names for HR concepts, processes, and tools is accelerating just like advances in technology. Now, we are all concentrating on “Employee Experience” … as if, for decades, how employees have felt has not mattered and we have miraculously discovered this new magic wand that will unleash every individual’s real potential and transform our organization’s performance.
Of course, Employee Experience is critically important. It has been for generations. But it is a very complex, not simple, issue.
Individuals are just that – individuals, with unique combinations of aspirations, capability, and needs. As even Maslow’s simple model, The Hierarchy of Needs explains, we can all have widely different hopes and expectations, and even these change over time.
So, our challenge continues to be to create working environments that can cater not merely for the average or norm but the full range of those hopes and expectations of our employees. Only then will employees have truly positive experiences. Most organizations have a percentage of employees who already have extremely positive experiences – studies have suggested an average of around 12%. But, clearly, the prevailing culture and working environment has not worked for the other 88%.
When focusing on Employee Experience, we may ignore at our peril the critically important and highly sensitive issue of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). Specific incidents, social media, legislation, and general societal pressure have forced this to the top of most organization’s agendas. Our success in each organization at dealing with it will be key to our achievement of a truly widespread positive Employee Experience and raising that 12% figure.
Organizations have worked hard to improve their diversity as part of their way of addressing Employee Experience. Many, for example, have gone well beyond addressing the issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Neurodiversity is even one of the newer characteristics being looked at.
Unfortunately, success at achieving diversity can so often lead to a mere numbers game. I was in a very senior management meeting a while back in New York. A senior manager was presenting on how he was recruiting more females when the chairperson slammed the desk and sternly asked, “Why are you doing that? You don’t listen to the ones you already have!” Therein, lies the issue.
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The employee experience is much more than laws, policies, and procedures … and the statistics they lead to. Employee Experience is about how employees feel in the working environment and how they feel is unique to each one of them. If we merely bring diverse groups of new employees into our organizations without working on how they are received, the opportunities for self-expression they have; the opportunities they can seize on to meet their needs and desires; etc, we can actually make things worse! The more we address diversity, the more important it is that we ensure equity and inclusion!
While there are arguments over the value of Affirmative Action, Increasing the diversity of our workforces will, over time, lead to shifts in the Employee Experience as employees progressively mix and experience the benefits of each others’ differences. But that takes considerable time and effort.
New policies and processes can also address elements of equity and inclusion. For example, we can put in place processes that ensure that new staff is actively involved in different types of work; get to work with those diverse from themselves; break up cliches that develop; ensure good communications; etc. But, ultimately the Employee Experience is most dramatically impacted by the experiences employees have as they interact with those with whom they work. These interactions strongly impact both hearts and minds.
Study after study has shown that one of the most powerful drivers of how we interact with others is our unique sets of Unconscious Preferences (often and unfortunately named, Unconscious Biases, which suggest that all of them are negative). We all have them. Our own library of them is unique and is continuously being refined by our own experiences. The mental process for creating detecting, storing, and modifying such preferences is immensely powerful and makes no judgment or evaluation of good or bad.
So, we all have a rich mix.
Three examples of Unconscious Bias (UB) that impact our interactions are:
1. Similarity or Affinity Bias
This is the preference to mix with others who are like us, who have probably had similar experiences, and may even have developed the same Unconscious Preferences. It is easier to interact with people just like us; it requires more effort to interact with those who are different. Unchecked, such unconscious preferences can lead us, unknowingly, to ignore, isolate, or even reject those with whom we do not feel that same unconscious affinity.
Think about how you greet people when you arrive at work or at a virtual meeting. Do you simply smile at and greet some, grunt at others, and ignore others? Most of us do! Do you listen to some people more than others, and treat their input as more valuable than others’ input. You probably do.
2. Authority/Benevolent Bias or Association Fallacy
This is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy and value to ideas, opinions, and suggestions from those we perceive to be more senior or having more authority. This can even sway our own opinions and lead us to make sub-optimal decisions.
Do you accept information, ideas, and instructions coming from some people, without even thinking … perhaps because of their status or experience?
3. Confirmation Bias
This is the preference to pay more attention to and attach more value to data and others that mirror our beliefs and ideas and to reject those that don’t. This can lead to a reinforcement of any unconscious biases that we have.
Unchecked, this unconscious preference can erode all the benefits that can come from diversity as those who disagree or have new ideas are ignored and left feeling excluded – the exact opposite of what our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are designed to achieve, and definitely contra any attempt to achieve a positive Employee Experience.
Do you pay far more attention to input from those with whom you typically agree? Do you welcome data that matches your own beliefs and question data more that doesn’t? Probably!
Do you deliberately seek out ideas from people with whom you often disagree or seek data that may challenge your thinking? Possibly not. We all have these and dozens of other unconscious preferences.
They are part of what makes us human.
Without the processes that create them and deploy them, we could not operate in our complex world. We couldn’t drive or work safely.
The challenge, when attempting to create a consistently positive Employee Experience, is that we all have to learn to DETECT and INTERRUPT such unconscious preferences or biases. Until we do, we will all continue to intend to be inclusive but still, through our everyday instinctive behaviors, reveal those biases, and continue to leave many feeling ignored, isolated, or even rejected.
But, strangely, this is a very contentious topic. Views have become progressively polarised – dare I say, biased? Even the former President of the United States of America believed that UB training suggests that all white managers are racist and so banned such training in any federal entity by Executive Order. By the way, that appears to have been rescinded now.
Many organizations have invested in UB training their managers and staff in how to identify and then manage their responses to their unconscious preferences. Some have done so to positive effect. More recently, many are arguing that such training does not work or they have seen little long-term positive effect. I wonder if they have done such rigorous analysis of any other of their training!
That is the very nature of behavior training – it takes more than just the training.
If we are to achieve fundamental changes in behavior, we need to ensure that there is powerful education and upskilling, plus timely and repetitive triggers to apply the knowledge and skills, and prompt and effective reinforcement to ingrain the new behaviors. And, frankly, that is just what it takes to achieve equity and inclusivity in the workplace, and so achieve the benefits of diversity.
Let’s hope that when the goal is so close, that we know how to achieve it, that HR does not again fall for the “Let’s keep it simple” unconscious preference and fail to deliver UB training where it is needed.
p.s., There are so many more other forms of UB, most of which have an even greater impact on operational decision making. But that’s for another article!
Know more about what’s new in employee experience at the People Matters Employee Experience India Conference on 10th June, 2021. Register Now!