Asim is a manager for a hi-tech company that has been living in the USA for most of his adult life. He considers it his home – five years back his employer sponsored him for a green card, which he cherishes. He is originally from India and is a Muslim, although he does not practice all the tenets of the faith, such as praying five times a day.
“I love America and it has given me and my family many opportunities. People were so welcoming when I first came to this country, and I made wonderful friends. Maybe it’s just my perception, but at work now I feel that some colleagues are looking at me in a different way and worrying that I am a terrorist. I am afraid they look at my wife and children that way too. And I am not sure if I can even travel back to India to visit my parents and return – in the airport now I am often ‘randomly’ selected for extra questioning, and on our last trip, even my wife and children were held in a room and interrogated. It was humiliating.” – Asim
Many organizations are looking closely at the social and political changes occurring in the USA and Europe and considering how best to respond. Amidst the current “hot button” issues such as immigration, free speech, international treaties, and terrorism, even those who normally prefer to remain bipartisan are called upon by consumers and politicians to take sides. In recent weeks companies including Ford, Starbucks, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Tesla, and Uber have all been in the news for their stances on various issues. And in other countries (Germany, the U.K.), business leaders have also faced pressures to take a firm position. It is tempting to withdraw into a safe community of like-minded people with echo chamber social media, but on a more micro-scale, some of us face divisions among our own family members as well.
This is gut-check time for executives who have confidently touted global corporate values such as inclusion and diversity, respect for the individual, equal opportunity, and social responsibility. Globalization has turned out to be a double-edged sword, bringing tremendous opportunities for growth in new markets, cross-border efficiencies, and professional development, but also painful displacements of factories and corporate functions, affecting both blue-collar and white-collar workers. Ferocious new competitors from abroad and hard-working immigrants at home produce substantial benefits, including lower prices and innovative products; at the same time, they can drive wages down or lead to lost jobs. In some locations, anger and fear over such unsettling changes have fueled divisive social issues that also drive wedges between company employees, foster extreme behaviors, and potentially result in acts of workplace harassment, legal disputes, or even violence.
Now more than ever is a time to role-model inclusive behaviors. Inclusive leadership is a process of bridge-building. It involves careful listening, outreach to people with different perspectives, and persistent, stubborn efforts to find common ground. It is founded on mutual respect — a conscious display of trustworthy behaviors is key, as trust is the currency of inclusion. This is often easier inside an organization than across a whole nation, as employees of any organization ultimately share the common objectives of growth in key markets, becoming more efficient, and attracting and retaining competent and highly skilled talent. Successful corporate leaders build self-awareness of their own cultural background, invite unexpected information from employees and from new markets, and become a catalyst for solutions that integrate different contributions.
Before any bridge-building can begin, however, each of us has to extract ourselves from the box of assumptions that often keeps us walled-in and impervious to the ideas and capabilities of others. Unconscious bias is a pervasive and self-reinforcing feature of the human brain, ultimately grounded in natural tendencies such as daily habits and instincts for self-preservation.
Here are four types of unconscious bias, with examples of how they can inhibit productive interactions among employees of the same organization.
“We see the world as we are.” Anais Nin
Humans are creatures of habit, and much of our day is spent on autopilot, carrying out routine tasks. Our expectations are shaped by our previous life experience, and the automatic reactions we have in response to these expectations – say, that other vehicles will stop when the traffic light turns red – make it possible for us to get through each day in a way that is functional and safe. However, even when our expectations are based on insufficient information and/or faulty assumptions, the same mental process tends to run in the background, “confirming” that we have seen what we expected to see, unless it is deliberately altered.
Because Asim is from South Asia and a Muslim, if he grows a beard, for example, other employees from different backgrounds may almost imperceptibly begin to feel that he has taken on radical beliefs because he now looks a bit more like those terrorists in the news. The real explanation may be that his wife thinks he looks better in a beard, that he finds it warmer to have facial hair during a damp and gloomy Seattle winter, or that he has taken on new responsibilities at work and is cultivating his new leadership image. Unless we take the time to question our assumptions we may find ourselves avoiding Asim in the cafeteria or hesitating to endorse him when he is put up for promotion.
One way for a leader to approach Confirmation Bias would be to reach out to Asim – invite him for lunch instead of avoiding him – and learn more about him, asking about his interests, goals, and aspirations, just as a good manager might do with any other employee. In the process, it is important not to make Asim feel singled out for being “different,” as this could make the situation worse instead of better. Learning more about Asim is likely to reshape our assumptions about him based on more pertinent information, and thereby to recast our daily perceptions of his actions. (Perhaps Asim is growing a beard because he lost a bet to his cousin that his favorite Bollywood star would get married this year.)
“Beware of strangers.”
For most of its history and pre-history, the human race lived in tribal units. Cities, countries, and corporations are relatively recent inventions. Our brains are wired to recognize and respond to threats to our survival, and to immediately recognize subtle cues regarding whether another person is part of what we regard as our “In-Group,” or a potentially hazardous “Out-Group.”
Asim speaks English with a British accent, visits India over the holidays, and knows more about cricket than baseball. Even though he has lived in the USA for many years and is a legal resident, there are still aspects of his appearance that could seem “foreign” to some U.S.-born workers who have not traveled widely. In a corporate context, inclusive leaders must actively counter this deep human instinct to distinguish insiders from outsiders.
Widen the “In-Group” circle by creating new markers of membership such as clothing with the company logo, team pictures, birthday celebrations, invitations to corporate events, honors and awards, and so on. It is more difficult to be suspicious of a person who just received a nice award for his tenth anniversary with the organization.
“Sorry I’m late. The traffic was terrible.”
Decades of psychological research have established that when there is a problem, we tend to explain our own actions in terms of circumstances, and attribute the actions of others to character flaws; the reverse is true when the results are positive. This kind of bias can also be present in perceptions of performance according to gender (e.g., “Emily’s team was successful because she had great team members, while Jason’s team did well because he is a brilliant leader”). Such bias surfaces in the presence of other kinds of Insider/Outsider dynamics as well: When Asim is late for a team meeting, for instance, a counterpart might mistakenly leap to the critical judgment, “He is not very well organized” (character), without noticing that Asim’s previous meeting ran over because the business unit director wanted to address a customer issue on the spot (circumstance).
Question character judgments, particularly regarding those who might not be perceived as Insiders, by asking about mitigating circumstances. “Is he frequently late or was this an exception? Did he have a prior meeting?” Likewise, question whether attributions to circumstances (the team performed well because of its members) are obscuring real talents or demonstrations of character.
“All the children are above average.”
Another enduring aspect of the human psyche is that we have greater subjective confidence in our judgments than an objective assessment would warrant. We also tend to overestimate our own performance relative to that of others. No one is exempt – generals, doctors, politicians, students, and corporate leaders can all fall victim to overconfidence. So in that Nine-Box succession planning meeting where a colleague confidently asserts that “Asim is a high performer, but not a high potential,” it is important to ask for more evidence. Is this assertion based on the fact that Asim has a management style that is grounded in his cultural background? How has he responded to previous opportunities for professional development? Is he more suited to a technical track than a management track? How will you know?
Test confident assertions, both your own and those of others, for signs that they are grounded in solid evidence. Systematically incorporate multiple perspectives and forms of evidence into processes such as succession planning to better ensure that assertions are examined from various points of view using balanced sources of data.
For those who find mnemonics useful, the Italian word CIAO has a dual meaning. It can signify greeting or departing, hello or good-bye. Each encounter that a leader has with fellow employees can be a greeting that is open to new information and possibilities, or a hasty act of avoidance due to faulty, unexamined assumptions. Remembering and running through the first letter of each of these forms of unconscious bias – Confirmation, Insider, Attribution, and Overconfidence – is one way of building greater awareness and ensuring that neither we nor our organizations fall victim to such bias ourselves. Once leaders can identify their own possible sources of bias, reexamine their perceptions, and seek fresh insight when needed, they are then able to make more informed and flexible choices.
Nearly everyone has felt excluded at some point in their lives. Moving to a new school, being chosen last for a playground team, making the wrong wardrobe choice, encountering a physical or verbal bully, not hanging out with the popular kids, or doing poorly in math – these are all ways that people may feel like an outsider as they are growing up. Some are made to feel like perpetual outsiders based on aspects of their lives that they cannot change such as skin color, gender, age, etc. Our workplaces, too, can promote either exclusion or inclusion.
Inclusive leaders provide a personal example through their daily actions, setting the tone for their organizations and team dynamics. If we seek to harness the full energy, enthusiasm, and potential of each individual in a diverse workforce, it is vital to find ways of fully including Asim along with others who have similar, but different life stories: Manuela, Marwan, Ayo, Sachiko, Leotie, Sergei, or Louise. Each name has a meaning, often unknown to co-workers, that only begins to point to the complexity of the person. It is essential for leaders and teams to be alert to the mental prison shaped by unconscious bias, and to recommit to the basic principles of listening, bridge-building, and creating common ground.
Ernest Gundling, PhD is a co-Founder of Aperian Global & currently serves as Managing Partner. Ernest works with clients to develop strategic global approaches to leadership, organization development, and relationships with key business partners. He’s a frequent contributor to many industry publications and has authored several books including Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.