From unconscious bias to conscious inclusion

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As human beings we are unique and complex by default. We continuously seek affirmation. Our brains search for acknowledgement and appreciation of who we are and the identities we hold. Indeed, when we are unsure of whether an important identity has been seen and acknowledged, we crave it more. This individual complexity and the desire for affirmation sits at the core of inclusion.

Bringing inclusion into leadership development conversation is critical. Not only does inclusion allow leaders to reflect on their own uniqueness, but it also facilitates an appreciation for the diverse identities of others. When applied to the workplace and teams there is a strong business case that diversity has multiple benefits on organisational effectiveness. From driving innovation and product development to improved customer relations and the retention of top talent. Intellectually, most organisations have woken up to this fact. In practice, however, they regularly miss the benefits of a diverse workforce.

For example, efforts to hire a more diverse workforce centre on the need to build teams of people with differing backgrounds, skills and opinions, but the presence of unconscious bias persists. By placing unequal value, or indeed, positive and negative biases, on certain attributes, the true power of diversity becomes diluted. If we take an example of introverted personality types within an organisational context where extroverted tendencies are rewarded, the contributions made by an introvert can easily be overlooked. This can result in quietly qualified individuals missing opportunities for promotion, while more vocal and visible individuals make advancements. 

The impact of unconscious bias

Although we all harbour unconscious biases, in the workplace they can have profound effects, particularly when they influence management decisions, such as the kind of people managers hire, who they fire, and how rapidly individuals are promoted. As a result, unconscious bias training has increased in demand and leaders are encouraged to monitor their behaviour closely. All these efforts beget the questions, are they getting the best out of people and allowing diversity to flourish? Are all team members feeling positively engaged and motivated? Are leaders creating psychologically safe environments where people are confident to voice their opinions? In many organisations, the honest and at times obvious answer to these questions is ‘no’.

Recognising biases and blockages is one thing; doing something about them is another. When tackled effectively however, efforts to foster inclusion can have tremendous outcomes. Take the American orchestras for example, they started using blind auditions in the 1970s, at a time when the top five orchestras had fewer than 5 percent women. This simple step made it 50 percent more likely that a woman would progress to the final round and in turn the number of women in orchestras increased.

The shift to conscious inclusion

The fact is, awareness of unconscious bias on its own is not enough. There needs to be a drive towards inclusive actions. Moving from a framework of avoiding unconscious bias to a mindset of cultivating conscious inclusion in leaders.

Guiding leaders towards this mindset, which recognises that leadership is about the quality of relationships built with others, is more constructive than simply getting them to acknowledge their own self-limiting beliefs (without sufficient guidance on what to do differently). Thus, the focus of conscious inclusion is not just on developing the leader as an individual, but on helping leaders to understand how they interact with others, and how to make those relationships as mutually beneficial and productive as possible. With the benefit of deep psychological insights, which can serve as a powerful tool in helping leaders understand themselves and others better, leaders can be taught to create increasingly inclusive cultures.

However, change does not happen overnight. Our research has uncovered that leading towards conscious inclusion requires a combination of: curiosity, courage, and interpersonal connection. Leaders need to keep an open-mind, both as a means of receiving a diversity of ideas, and in order to make sense of complexity and lead through dynamic change.  All the while, leaders should connect with their own unique strengths and vulnerabilities, embrace those of others, and collectively work towards a common good. We believe that through the process of uncovering understanding and appreciation of one’s own identity and the identities of others, we can foster an increased level of personal investment and work towards productive conversations on how organisations can create an inclusive culture.

While most leadership development programs focus on leaders in their formal roles, it’s important that businesses recognises that to create an inclusive environment, they need buy in from their people. Whilst the first step may be for leaders to invite others to join in, individuals need to feel as though their participation and contributions will be meaningful and desired. In some instances, an individual’s personal history or fears may mean they hold back when an opportunity presents itself. Female employees, for instance, may underestimate their skills and therefore not put themselves forward for a job or promotion. In other words, they may unconsciously exclude themselves. In work, as in the rest of life, to thrive we cannot merely spectate. We need to look at ourselves as leaders, but also as participants in trying to create a culture that embraces everyone for their uniqueness and recognises this uniqueness as the key to success.

Understand that diversity is about all of us and our unique identities, but for diversity to thrive inclusion must be cultivated. With all this in mind, here are some practical first steps to help you shift to conscious inclusion:

  1. Get to know yourself, your identity, forms of expression and the attributes people may attach to you (positive or negative). Have you experienced moments of inclusion/exclusion and how can you use these experiences to understand others and the environment you create?
  2. Get to know your people: do people feel empowered to speak up, valued for their contributions and embraced as a result of their diverse identities – if not, how can you modify your behaviour to create a greater sense of psychological safety?
  3. Continuously reflect on moments of unconscious bias and think about how you may act differently next time. Be courageous in calling out exclusionary behaviours in others
  4. Finally, be the change you want to see. Role model inclusive behaviours like the above and make this behaviour the new normal – encouraging others to reflect and embody these practices

About Anita Kirpal

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