The commitment to create an inclusive, culturally competent organization is more necessary than ever. Workplace and marketplace issues all create a business case for why organizations should pay attention to how race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and identities can be managed so all employees can be successful, contributing members of their organizations.
How can a business operate, for example, without getting the best talent? In the demographic revolution happening today, that requires managing diversity more effectively. How can a business be successful when employees feel alienated and disengaged because many don’t believe they are fully included? How can an organization meet the needs of its increasingly diverse customers?
Chief learning officers play a critical role in ensuring their employees and organizations understand how these dynamics impact various aspects of the business. In fact, in today’s workplace, organizational learning that does not include development of a deeper understanding of diversity is missing the boat.
To ensure the learning organization contributes at the highest level and creates the greatest impact in a diverse workplace, leaders must learn to be more inclusive: valuing, acknowledging and including others from all backgrounds. Anti-bias work has been synonymous with creating more effective, inclusive leaders for decades. Further, for years many people have accepted the assumption that if people in positions of power and authority can learn not to be biased, they will be able to treat everyone with a greater sense of equity and inclusion. Yet, even though most leaders see the importance of a lack of bias, we still struggle to create truly inclusive and culturally competent organizations.
There is a simple reason for this frustration: It is not possible to eliminate all bias because human beings need it to survive. People go out in the world every day and make decisions about what is safe, what is appropriate, and so on. This automatic decision making has been called a danger detector because the mind determines if something or someone is safe before it can even begin to consciously make a determination about a course of action.
When we assess an object, animal or person to be dangerous, a fight or flight response occurs. On a conscious level, people may correct a mistake in this danger detector when they notice it. More often, however, we simply generate reasons to explain and justify our thoughts and actions. People are generally convinced their decisions are rational. In reality, a substantial majority of decisions are based on visceral feelings and emotions. Learned facts and evidence are later generated to justify our actions. When people sense danger, their sense of comfort or discomfort already has been engaged.
These kinds of feelings can emerge in everyday situations. Do managers hesitate when it comes to giving feedback to somebody of a different race or gender? Do marketing people notice when their messages are geared only to the culture to which they belong? Which employees do supervisors give stretch jobs to? Who do they mentor? Who are people simply more comfortable and more natural being around?
“Virtually all bias is unconscious bias,” said Brett Pelham, the program officer for social psychology at the National Science Foundation. “We have learned to trust women to be nurturing and men to be powerful, for example, in much the same way that Pavlov’s puppies trusted ringing bells to predict the arrival of meat powder. … Being biased is how we get through life without evaluating everything afresh every time we experience it.”
Testing technologies have helped us to determine that decisions influenced by unconscious patterns of bias play out in hundreds of ways. For instance, computer technologies, such as the Implicit Association Test, developed by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, allow millions of people’s responses to be processed. Brain researchers now can actually watch the brain reacting to various stimuli.
Research confirms that bias exists. Studies such as “The Effect of Physical Height on Workplace Success and Income,” published in June 2004 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, have shown that people are more often selected to many corporate positions because they are taller. “Predicting Political Elections from Rapid and Unreflective Face Judgments,” published in June 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that people select politicians in seconds, based on appearance. Daniel Casasanto and Evangelia Chrysikou of the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics reported that being right-handed inclines us to make choices on our right side more times than not; Boaz Keysar and Shiri Lev-Ari of the University of Chicago report people are less likely to believe others who have a different accent. Joni Hersch of Vanderbilt University conducted research that proves people with darker skin earn less money. There are dozens of other studies that demonstrate similar phenomena.
Bias occurs because our fundamental way of encountering the world is driven by this hard-wired pattern of making unconscious decisions about others based on what feels safe, likable, valuable and competent, and that includes our reactions to the people we work with every day.
According to Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson, published in 2004, scientists estimate that people are exposed to as many as 11 million pieces of information at any one time, but the brain can only deal with about 40. We all develop a unique perceptual lens that filters out certain things and lets others in. Our filters depend on certain perceptions, interpretations, preferences and biases that have evolved during our lifetimes. We also selectively react to certain things that we tend to believe because they have a sticking power to our consciousness. Exceptions are easy to ignore or forget, hence our biases are reinforced.
As a result of these pre-established filters, all of us see, hear and interpret things differently than others. We might not even see them at all. In fact, our interpretations may be so far off that we might question, “How do I know what is real anyway?”
In organizations, this decision-making process impacts the choices leaders make in recruiting, promoting, mentoring, job assignments, marketing, performance reviews and customer service. It also impacts business strategy and virtually all communications. This requires organizational learning to be as introspective as it is focused on how best to change actions and behaviors. This kind of learning is built on activities that require leaders and line-level employees to inquire into not only what decisions they make, but also why they make those decisions. Whether face-to-face or online, learning should experientially challenge people’s perception of reality. It should invite leaders to develop a sense of constructive uncertainty about their decision-making processes not only through formal learning programs, but in ongoing self-exploration and learning through individual and group exploration such as journaling or action learning projects.
This can be a challenge for chief learning officers, one perhaps best met with the help of diversity practitioners. Historically, organizational learning, personal development and diversity work was built on an architecture of addressing conscious beliefs and behaviors. The notion in anti-bias efforts always has been if we can eradicate bias, people will be treated with equity and inclusion. But this approach can make people feel wrong or guilty for something that is completely normal and human. As a result we look for excuses for our behavior, or simply refuse to or cannot see it, rather than being open and willing to see and acknowledge our blind spots.
This situation is not hopeless, but simply trying to talk ourselves out of bias, or trying to “politically correct” ourselves won’t work. As the keepers of organizational and personal development, learning leaders can play an important role in this process by constantly reminding employees that bias is normal and they should explore and understand it, not avoid and be ashamed of it. In fact, as counterintuitive as it might seem, the pathway to overcoming bias begins by accepting its normalcy. When we accept that we have normal biases, it becomes easier to observe how they may be impacting our decisions or reactions. Accepting personal biases makes them less, not more likely to impact others. For example, if we know we have a bias toward a particular kind of person, rather than beating ourselves up or compensating for it, we can use that awareness to observe where it might impact our behavior, and then identify what steps are necessary to modify it.
The goal is not only to change thinking, but to positively impact organizational outcomes. “Professional training opportunities that increase cultural awareness and build new skills are a cornerstone of our development program at Freddie Mac,” said John Stickeler, director of the company’s office of diversity and inclusion. “[This] helps employees strengthen and forge stronger working relationships and develop more thoughtful and effective decisions and solutions. Enhancing and expanding our cultural competence and self-awareness also allows us to better understand, respond to and support our diverse communities across America.”
Awareness of the impact of bias and our ability to address it can prompt stakeholders to develop the capacity to understand our organizations in more sophisticated ways. By conducting new kinds of organizational assessments that focus on some of the organization’s unconscious behaviors and processes, leaders are learning to observe the unconscious patterns of organizational behavior. This allows them to identify patterns that get in the way of growth and success, and transform them.
To effectively address bias, organizations will have to execute a fundamentally different approach to organizational learning as well as diversity management, one that diminishes the tendency to feel guilty or shameful and acknowledges that the unconscious mind is malleable. We can train people to become more conscious about fear impulses and pause before they decide or act. As the psychologist Rollo May wrote in his book The Courage to Create, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.”
We can create organizational cultures that are more conscious of the choices we make and the way we make decisions, and establish certain structures and processes to encourage this kind of higher consciousness in ways that have profound impact on people and business decisions.
Because of their influence over organizational learning, chief learning officers can contribute to a transformation in how employees and organizations address an uncomfortable reality: We all have biases. As leaders, our charge is to communicate that we are aware of them. Each of us can show we are committed to overcoming the kinds of bias that interferes with our fairness, effectiveness and productivity, and therefore increase the development of people, purpose and performance in our organizations.
Howard J. Ross is the founder and chief learning officer for Cook Ross Inc. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.