In this lesson from Big Think+, management expert Jennifer Brown, a diversity training consultant who works with leading companies, explores pitfalls and strategies for dealing with unconscious bias.
There are several ways to create a culturally competent organization and one of the most important ways is training, whether that’s online and virtual training and learning or classroom-based learning. They actually play different roles but they’re equally important. What’s important for diverse talent to feel welcomed and heard in your organization is that there are large training initiatives whereby everyone has the conversation about the role of things like cultural competence, unconscious bias, which still plays a role, believe it or not, in today’s workplace. That’s a danger in terms of employee engagement and making everyone feel that they can bring their full selves to work.
Unconscious bias is still with us, it’s still a factor and it does impact the ability of talent, and I see it mostly with younger talent and also especially with diverse talent to really get ahead and move up the pipeline in organizations. The story that I think summarizes it best is sort of a composite of the sorts of conversations that are had with female talent and typically male managers, sometimes female managers. And it revolves often around family choices and flexibility arrangements that the female employee may be seeking but may not be seeking.
But the assumption – and this is where the unconscious bias comes in – is that, the assumption is that it is impacting her choices and that we know what those choices might be. So it is really the assumption that all women care about X, Y, Z. All women are struggling with X, Y, Z. Even just assuming that women need and want balance and that it is defined in the same way across all women is not true. So when I hear stories specifically around even the discussion of travel and openness to travel for up and coming female talent. If someone knows that a woman has a family and children, the assumption might be made that she wouldn’t be interested in that assignment. So the opportunity is not even raised to her. Or it may be raised with a statement like, “Well, there’s a lot of travel involved. You may not be interested in that.” So it is an assumption like that. It’s an assumption around work hours and when women might be available for conference calls with clients. I just heard from a client that she was left off of a 7 p.m. cocktails with a client. It was her client but it was assumed that it was after hours and that she wouldn’t be available. So these are some of the examples of the little things that can really add up that can actually hurt your ability to attract, retain and grow diverse talent.
Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias
There’s not an intent that’s bad that’s behind unconscious bias. It is more that we see things through our lens. And really that’s all we know unless we really proactively push against that, that we lean into the discomfort, that we try to learn more and we ask more questions and make fewer statements and fewer assumptions. So we check for understanding. We ask an open ended questions to say, you know, include someone in a meeting and give them the opportunity to say, you know, "I’m not available." But unfortunately these kinds of micro decisions are made on an ongoing basis. And little by little they really impair the ability of at least female talent, for sure, to say, “No, I want that assignment. I want that opportunity. I want to be included because I know decisions are gonna be made and I want to be in that room when they’re made.”
One of the interesting things about feedback and honest conversations between managers and subordinates, people that work for them, is that feedback and honesty is most difficult across lines of difference. So there is a self-awareness and self-consciousness on the part of the manager relating to being able to ask questions. And this is born out of our history in organizations that we wanted to be compliant. We wanted to make sure that, you know, we wouldn’t have a call from HR. But the problem with it is that especially diverse talent needs the feedback -- and potentially more than traditional talent.
And so it’s a perfect storm of isolation that you can create if you are purposely not having conversations or asking questions that genuinely you need to know in order to ensure that people are motivated, doing their best work, feel like they can bring their whole selves to work and want to stay and grow at your company. So what I’d recommend for leaders and managers that are managing others across lines of difference – whether that’s geographic, cultural, ethnicity, gender – is to say what you don’t know, to be honest about that. And the language sounds like "I am trying to understand.... I would like to know more about... Could you share more about your viewpoint on X..." And listen, paraphrase for understanding, making sure that you are capturing it accurately and that you don’t rush to judgment and you manage opinions and, frankly, stereotypes that you might have had about what the answer would be.
And I think with that simple guidance the conversation will go to a place that you don’t expect, and the level of honesty and the trust will be built just in the process of asking that question, let alone how you follow up on what’s actually shared with you, which I hope includes you listening and responding and taking action if you physically can take action.