Why an acute awareness of unconscious bias is key to embracing diversity
In a multicultural society, diversity is ever present in both our personal and work life. In the workplace, diversity refers to the variety of differences between people which encompasses race, gender, ethnic group, age, personality, cognitive style, sexual preference, tenure, organisational function, education, background and more.
Humans are heavily biased towards things that are familiar to them. It’s why we only visit websites or social networks that express our opinions, political or other. And why we mostly hang around with people who hold similar views. We tend to be put off by people, groups, and even news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our beliefs and values. It’s this preferential mode of behaviour that leads to confirmation bias which is an often unconscious act of referencing only those perspectives that feed our pre-existing viewpoints, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing opinions that threaten them, no matter how valid the counter opinion may be.
Confirmation bias can also occur when we proactively seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs.
This is very similar to the frequency illusion. When you buy a new car, suddenly you see the same car everywhere. It’s a passive experience, where our brain seeks out information that is related to us, but we believe there’s been an actual increase in the frequency of those occurrences. And for the most part, all of this happens unconsciously.
In the workplace, unconscious bias can occur when:
- Talented people are left out of your workforce
- Or not allowed equal opportunity for development and career progression
- Diverse voices aren’t heard in meetings or discussions and decisions can be impaired
- Your culture is not demonstrating inclusive workplace principles
- Employees are not contributing fully to your organisation
- Creativity and productivity of your team or organisation may be compromised.
A coaching perspective
The coach’s role is to uncover any unconscious bias that may or may not be present. But how does the coach see what cannot be seen? Quite often the coach themselves has their own bias ” conscious or unconscious, and therefore may not see it in their counterpart. So it is important for coaches to recognise their own biases first, and then be mindful to look out for any biases that may be present in their counterpart during the coaching session. These biases may not be obvious and quite often can be present in the things that the counterpart is not saying rather than what they are saying. Emotions are a good indicator as they can betray what is actually being said in a lot of cases.
It happens to the best of them
So what happens when an organisation becomes acutely aware of unconscious biases but still excludes people?
At the 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) music and technology festival in Austin, Texas, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google was speaking on a panel with Megan Smith, the US government’s chief technology officer and former Google senior staffer, An astute audience member challenged Schmidt for interrupting Megan Smith repeatedly throughout the session. This was a classic example of what Jessica Bennett, writing in Time magazine has dubbed “manterrupting” or the “unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man”.
The astute challenger in the audience was Google’s own Judith Williams, head of global diversity and talent programs. Ironically, Williams runs workshops within Google to educate staff about the unconscious biases that contribute to discrimination in the workplace. So to rub salt further into the wound, the panel that Schmidt and Smith were talking on at the SXSW event was discussing racial and gender diversity in the tech industry.
During the panel discussions, Smith also made reference to another of Bennett’s neologisms: “bropropriating”, or “taking a woman’s idea and taking credit for it”. Smith told the audience she sometimes floated ideas at meetings but got no response, only to have a man offer up the same idea as his own, half an hour later.
In a New York Times post, Williams wrote that “much of the bias in the workplace is unconscious, so to fight it we (Google) focused on subtle and unintended discrimination in decision-making”. Williams recognised that being transparent about the problem (workplace bias) was a vital part of the solution, but it wasn’t always enough. And points out that more than 26,000 Googlers have participated in workshops about unconscious bias and that it has created a culture where employees are comfortable with, and held accountable for calling out prejudice, both blatant and subtle.
We believe the key to organisational coaching and diversity is to first understand the effects of unconscious bias in the workplace, and then to set ground rules encouraging both the coach and the counterpart to feel comfortable to call out any biases or prejudices that may arise – consciously or unconsciously.