It seems its finally ok to be open about the fact that discrimination in the work place is a reality and I am thankful for this. Over the last 20 years we have been told repeatedly that we all have biases – but that many of these are unconscious. The good news is that now that we are more aware of them, we can find positive ways to eliminate them.
Dealing with any kind of workplace discrimination has been seen as hard work and often a subject to be avoided. A recent article in the Guardian summarised this well in that “it is therefore not surprising that the concept of unconscious or implicit bias has captured the attention of people more than any other idea in psychology in recent decades.” Countless studies have shown that unconscious bias is a fact of life and offers an explanation for why society is unfair. The article goes on to say that “by framing some prejudices as something that is involuntarily absorbed from society and the world around us, the notion of unconscious bias has, at last, provided business with a language to talk about the problem.” We can at last acknowledge that whilst we may not be aware of our prejudices, (and may prefer not to admit them if we are), they can have negative impacts on how we engage with and lead others.
We can at last acknowledge that whilst we may not be aware of our prejudices, (and may prefer not to admit them if we are), they can have negative impacts on how we engage with and lead others.
There are thousands of stories of lived experiences providing overwhelming evidence that negative unconscious bias creeps into decisions that affect everything from where we shop, how we recruit people to the way we treat people in the services we provide and the assumptions we make about people on a daily basis. From a neurological point of view, I accept our brains are hardwired to make shortcut decisions due to the number of choices we face every day and that it would be overwhelming if we had to consciously evaluate every single one. I recognise that this means there is a direct link between our unconscious thinking and our actions and behaviour. But I do not accept this as an excuse. We are an evolved species and when it comes to making choices at work, it’s important to know they are not based on socialised bias.
My concern is that acceptance of unconscious bias could become a cloak for hiding discriminatory views and absolving people of their behaviour. For me it begs the questions, are some workplace biases genuinely unconscious? Do unconscious bias programmes really help to deal with the issue and enable people to become more critical and analytical in their thinking and behaviour?
One senior leader I was working with proudly told me that all managers received a mandatory 2-hour workshop on unconscious bias, so they had no issues with recruitment. It doesn’t need me to point out that this is not going to eliminate a life time of socialisation. But it is a start. We need to continue to encourage people to be honest with themselves about the stereotypes that affect them, whatever they may be.
We need to continue to encourage people to be honest with themselves about the stereotypes that affect them, whatever they may be.
One off work place programmes to help people increase their awareness of their unconscious biases are a positive step but not a panacea. It is important that these initiatives are part of a long-term set of actions to help to create greater critical thinking, exposure to different views and ideas and an opportunity to question, challenge and be curious without fear of being labelled as discriminating in some way. We need more creative ways of helping people to understand bias and to better understand what situations tend to activate our biases.
Spending time talking with and communicating with people in the organisation – colleagues, those we manage, and our partners are important ways in helping to uncover bias. We need clear and consistent signals in the language, symbols and artefacts used in our organisations as ways of helping to re educate us all.
We need more creative ways of helping people to understand bias and to better understand what situations tend to activate our biases.
We know from the lack of traction over several decades that the way to deal with discrimination is not by just having policies and procedures. This is a basic legal requirement. Change comes with creating environments where there is a value on curiosity and questioning traditional ways of doing things. We need to be mindful every day about our thoughts, the way we communicate and the impact of our actions to demonstrate that we genuinely believe that a diverse workforce is an asset. We need to send a clear signal that this is not just lip service and that we mean business.
If you would like to discuss this topic in more detail, please contact Lubna Haq at Claridade on 07342 960096. I look forward to hearing your views.