Navigating unconscious bias when the whole world is watching

“Combating our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right. But it’s necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people.”

– Laszlo Bock, CEO and co-founder of Humu, Former SVP of People Operations at Google

Like it or not, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, we are all prone to unconscious bias. As I write about in my book Inclusion, even those of us who do this work for a living still struggle with our all-too-human wiring.

When I walk into a room of all-white male executives, for example, it’s easy for me to make assumptions about who they are. Then, as I ask them to share what diversity means to them, I often discover that most of them also have a story associated with an identity or background, and the experience of exclusion, which may be related to ethnicity, socioeconomic class, political affiliation, or family, to name just a few.

Everyone has a story about diversity

Almost as often as I make these assumptions, I discover that I’ve made an error that says more about me than it does about the other individual. This is an important reminder to me — and should be to all of us — that everyone has a story about diversity.

It’s also critical for me to discuss this connection in my conversation with those who enjoy privilege — namely, the men in the room who have the power to influence changes that would affect many in their organization.

It is critical that they too see themselves as having a story to share.

The ripple effect of bias

Rather than view unconscious bias as an unwelcome intrusion in my thoughts, I see it as a reminder to be watchful and to keep learning, to share my process and progress with others, and to put myself into situations where I am confronted with a broader array of examples of “different from me.”

Others certainly may not enjoy this journey as much as I, getting stuck in resistance, stubbornly defending their own lens as the only way to look at a situation.

They protect themselves and their beliefs, and shore up their power and position for what they think is survival and maybe self-protection, but their behavior actually has the opposite effect. It can send damaging ripple effects outward, especially in organizations where so many still look upward for cues about norms, behaviors, and what’s acceptable.

Leaders are watched very closely. And the scrutiny CEOs are subjected to in this social media age — in which one remark can lead to public outcry, fallout, and even firing — means it’s not just other leaders in an organization who are watching closely, but society as a whole.

The world is watching… and inclusion is now a baseline, especially for millennial customers and employees.

If inclusion is expected, what happens when expectations aren’t met?

When faced with a situation in which a company representative has said the wrong thing, an organization must take swift and intentional action to rebuild trust without delay. And, depending on the severity of the misstep, action must not only be immediate, but it must be long term.

The good news is that this presents executives with an opportunity to become more self-aware; to begin their journey along the Ally Continuum; to demonstrate a commitment to building a forward-thinking and inclusive workplace not just today, but every day.

The bad news is that the polarization that can happen around the outward expression of unconscious bias can send an unintended message to the people we need to participate in this discussion the most, making them feel like they won’t ever be successful in navigating inclusion.

The question is:

How can we invite people to broaden their understanding and change their perspective? How can we invite people to do better—to be better?

For a company going through the throes of a PR disaster, how do we get people to revisit their unconscious bias without bringing an entire company to its knees?

We have seen companies respond, via punishment, to those involved in those disasters. I have heard mixed reviews from many executives: some stating punishment is the right response, others stating training should be, and some stating that there should be a mixture of both.

Being in this position is never what any company wants, but there is no silver bullet. There is no ‘right’ answer.

A more inclusive future

Some people are born being allies who are passionate about equality. Others learn to be over time. Regardless, all allies — and future allies — require support and coaching and trust in order to progress.

If you are a business leader who has made the business commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion, like the 150+ leading CEOs who have pledged to act on supporting a more inclusive workplace, and you’d like to explore what that kind of support might look like for you, get in touch today.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on this new landscape that is still taking shape? I’d love to know.


A version of this post first appeared here. Learn more in Jennifer Brown’s book Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace & The Will To Change.


The images above were taken at Life@Work Hasbrouck House presented by Live Grey. Join conversations like this and more at Life@Work Brooklyn this fall. Learn more at www.lifeatwork.co.

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