By Jennifer Brown and Gemma Toner
Unconscious biases are often based on mistaken, inaccurate, or incomplete information. They can have a significant impact on workplaces, shaping who gets recruited, hired, and promoted. Now, more than ever, creating an inclusive workplace environment is required for employees to reach their full potential and for organizations to succeed. It impacts people’s careers, corporate cultures, and the bottom line. What would work environments look like if we all aimed to feel curious, ask questions, demonstrate humility, and consider whether we might have contributed to someone feeling that she can’t bring her full self to work? How can we move forward to address the issues and ensure new behaviors stick and prevail?
Four Inclusive Behaviors to Start Now:
- Stop to monitor your own biases. By revisiting our actions or inactions through the lens of inclusivity, and getting feedback from others regarding our intent versus our impact, we’ll develop the level of attention needed to ensure space and opportunity are available, in the same ways, to all. Gather your data and analyze it with full transparency.
- Become aware that you can do more, and that just your intent to be inclusive—or your belief that you are a good person—isn’t proactive, and can’t impact the daily experience of others in a significant way on its own.
- Take an inventory of how much you know about communities or cultures that aren’t your own, and change the media you consume to intentionally expose yourself to new ways you can be more alert and sensitive to differences of all kinds. Remember that the workplace is a microcosm of society. Podcasts are a good place to start, but there is also plenty of thought leadership focused on the experiences of certain identities, including people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ+, veterans, and all generations.
- Give life to the learning you have done by reaching out one-on-one to others who are different from you. Think particularly about your network, mentees, and friends, and start to notice who is missing from the mix. Begin to not only notice who’s missing, but also raise the issue when you do. If there is openness to change, have ideas and resources at the ready.
Where do we get unconscious biases?
In order to understand unconscious bias in the workplace, we must look at the origin of biases. “Unconscious bias” is something we all inherently have; it’s how our brains process and interpret data and information. It’s human nature to sort new information based on preexisting patterns of thoughts and beliefs.
When given new information, reacting with unconscious bias feels comfortable and natural to us. Many unconscious biases are learned and internalized during childhood and early adulthood; family and community beliefs, media, school, and peer opinions can influence unconscious biases.
Even if not based in malice, unconscious bias can lead to behaviors and actions that are deemed “unfair,” and can ultimately negatively influence an organization’s environment, while having a profound impact on groups of people who have been unfairly stereotyped. The unfortunate truth is that people who identify as part of certain groups will have experienced relatively more bias, both unconscious and overt, in the form of comments, jokes, or other practices that reinforce exclusion and interrupt the sense of belonging that is critical for performance.
Intent doesn’t equal change.
A common mistake made by leaders is to rest on positive intent and think it’s enough. We’ve seen leaders truly taken aback when confronted with data—such as the actual evidence of pay disparities and lack of diversity in company representation—because it conflicts with many people’s sense of fairness.
We might want things to be equal, but that does not automatically build more equitable structures in workplaces that weren’t originally built by and for all kinds of talent. This is an illustration of the classic “intent versus impact” polarity. In order to truly change workplace culture for all, leaders must ask tougher questions, demand data, put processes in place, and make decisions that will lead to different outcomes.
Developing self-reflection habits and changing behavior.
Once organizations commit to embracing diversity as essential for their business, they must quickly translate those cursory lessons into behaviors and actions backed and supported by institutional goals for change, metrics, and accountability.
For many, embracing diversity and inclusion will mean challenging old habits, like hiring in our own image, or believing that any unconscious bias training exists merely to “check a box.” We can’t wait for those who run diversity and inclusion in our workplaces to create all the change we need. Leaders on all levels need to ask more questions and learn more about their colleagues; the more we learn about others, the more we realize that stereotyping or initial impressions are not indicators of a person’s work ethic, performance quality, or potential to succeed.
To overcome unconscious bias we must be keely aware of its presence, reflect upon the nature of the bias, determine how it’s influencing our ideas, and then commit to implementing practical strategies that work against the bias by changing behavior. These behavioral patterns can be hard to change, especially when we don’t think we’re being “unfair.” However, this process is crucial to create lasting change for both individuals and organizations.
Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, and diversity and inclusion expert. She is the founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC), a strategic leadership and diversity consulting firm that coaches business leaders worldwide regarding critical issues of talent and workplace strategy. Brown is a passionate advocate for social equality who helps businesses foster healthier, more productive workplace cultures. Her book Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change (2016) will inspire leadership to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents and empower advocates to drive change that resonates in today’s world. Jennifer’s second book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2019), which is a step-by-step guide for the personal and emotional journey we must undertake to create an inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive, contains The Inclusive Leader Continuum and an accompanying free online assessment (http://inclusiveleaderthebook.com).
Gemma Toner, founder and CEO of Tone Networks, is a media and telecommunications leader known for driving innovation at the intersection of big data and digital media. As a senior executive in the cable industry for more than 20 years, Toner experienced firsthand the transformative power of executive coaching and mentoring. In 2017, with an eye toward helping other women achieve their potential, Toner created TONE Networks, a learning and development platform that helps accelerate the growth of female talent through expert video content, virtual coaching, and a vibrant online community. Featuring more than 1,000 videos, TONE Networks offers guaranteed content for women from any walk of life and enables users to discover career coaches and expertise that otherwise may be hard to find or afford. A one-stop resource for self-care, the content is personalized and can be consumed in minutes.