At the start of 2021, we are way past when we need to explain the importance of achieving both diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Study after study has shown that organizations with broadly diverse workforces, all members of which feel included, are more productive, more creative, more innovative, and more sustainable.
So, why do we still seem to have a mountain to climb to get to that state in most if not all organizations? In part, for the same reason that most of us are not fit and healthy, despite understanding what to do to achieve it, and having the resources needed to do so! On a second-by second-basis, our brain tricks us into making bad decisions. Whilst it is useful to know the highly complex and detailed neuroscience explanation, a more simplified one aids understanding.
From the second we are born until the second we die, our brain is detecting patterns around us. When it does so, it locks them into memory – it creates mental shortcuts, “When you experience similar circumstances again, this is how you should respond - the thought to have, the thing to say, the action to take.” When faced with matching circumstances, it pulls that memory back and applies it … in almost an instant and without conscious thought. And, the more commonly and forcefully the pattern arises, the more ingrained the defined response becomes … and the more automatic, unconscious, and rapid the response to recurring similar circumstances.
That is how, for example, we learn to walk, speak, and drive. Can you imagine driving if you had to consciously process every bit of information before being able to accelerate, change gear, stop at traffic lights, etc.?
Once we have practiced, when we see a red light, the physical movements needed to stop are virtually all performed without conscious thought!
In simple terms, our brain creates unconscious preferences or, now unfortunately named, ‘Unconscious Biases’. This instinctive response mechanism is human, normal, and necessary. But, it is what makes tackling diversity and inclusion so challenging. We may even be born with some of these unconscious biases such as the affinity bias (the preference for people just like ourselves, which in our early existence may have driven tribal behavior, so necessary for survival).
Earlier, I used the phrase, “unfortunately named” because the word “bias” itself has an immediate negative unconscious connotation. This inhibits some people from attempting to understand the origin of such biases, how they work, and learn how to detect and respond to their adverse effects. Indeed, on September 22, 2020, the former President of the USA signed an executive order, running to nearly 3500 words, banning certain “Unconscious bias training” in federal agencies. It’s intent was expressly honorable - seeking to stamp out any training that legitimizes stereotyping. Unfortunately, it’s wording included the phrases, “whether consciously or unconsciously” and “unconscious bias” which, because of the penalties attached, has led some bodies to immediately cease providing staff and managers with any valuable unconscious bias training – training that genuinely helps to identify such unconscious preferences that they have, and to take action to inhibit their impact. Even very recently, the UK chairman of KPMG resigned over comments that included “there is no such thing as unconscious bias”. He did go on to say “unless you care, you won’t actually change” but denying the existence of unconscious bias …really?
Back to the challenge of addressing diversity & inclusion: most organizations’ initial response is rightly to address diversity first. This is the essential first step and, whilst challenging, the easier task. Attraction, selection, and promotion processes can be reviewed and modified; monitoring of these implemented; metrics compiled; targets set, and regular reviews and corrective actions taken. Whilst it takes time, the numbers will eventually show increased diversity. But aggressively addressing diversity first makes the situation worse!
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Why? Because, those who would previously not have been employed or promoted now find themselves employed or promoted … but generally ignored, not taken seriously, and frequently ostracized or patronized.
Idealists defend the action by extrapolating the concept, “We progressively become like the average of the people with which we surround ourselves,” and argue that this is a temporary state and that, over time, the frequent exposure to a more diverse workforce modifies unconscious biases and greater acceptance or inclusion then arises. I’m sure it does! But, how long does it take? A long, long time! In some cases, outside of organizations, we are talking generations. Hence much of the global frustration.
How long is it going to take for diverse experiences to modify or eradicate common, ingrained, unconscious preferences which have been experienced, remembered, and reinforced over decades before we were even employed? It’s about as overly simplistic as saying, “Surround yourself with skinny people and you’ll lose weight!” Magazines and media that focus on a certain body image have proved for years that this doesn’t work and can lead to very negative outcomes.
Even more concerning is that unconscious biases do not affect only recruitment, promotion, and collaboration. They also affect many aspects of how we work, especially the critically important skill of operational decision making. There are tens of unconscious biases that trigger instant responses (thoughts, words, and actions) which may be quite different from those made with conscious thought. These can have dramatic operational, financial, and even life-threatening consequences e.g.,
- Negative framing of a problem can lead people to address the wrong problem and take inappropriate risks.
- Anchor bias can lead us to make poor decisions like paying way too much for things.
- Availability bias can mislead us into addressing the wrong problem or failing to explore suitable options by misjudging the relative importance of different factors.
- Optimism bias can lead us to believe that we can do more than we can with the resources available, that we can do things faster than we can, and even that we can do things that are beyond our capability.
- Confirmation bias leads us to believe data or people’s opinions that confirm our own beliefs more than those that challenge or inform them.
If we are to achieve genuine inclusion, of course, we need a diverse workforce. But it is far better if that is achieved because those recruiting and promoting others are conscious of the factors that inhibit diversity and inclusion and take specific corrective action. To achieve that, they need more than mere process training and exhortation to pursue diversity and inclusion.
Once we have a diverse workforce, we then need to take deliberate action to ensure that they are genuinely included i.e., proactively involved, listened to, taken seriously, empowered, resourced, supported, and recognized. That demands that all of us, including those who are different from us, are educated in the factors that inhibit our thinking - the sources of, symptoms of, and the impacts of Unconscious biases. We all also need to be equipped to detect their presence and take conscious action to prevent or mitigate their impact.
Unconscious bias training can and should be delivered under the banner of addressing diversity & inclusion. But, it should also be delivered under another banner – enhancing the quality of our operational decision-making. Let’s not shy away from the fact that addressing unconscious biases is a business imperative, not merely a social, moral, and ethical issue.
Read more such stories from the March 2021 issue of our e-magazine on 'The Moment to Fix the DE&I Equation'