Organizations are striving to build Inclusion. Inclusive culture can lead to concrete business benefits like greater innovation, increased productivity, reduced attrition, better engagement with customers and stakeholders. But the challenge is in moving from intent to concrete strategy and action.
One of the key challenges comes in the form of unconscious biases.
The term ‘Blindspot’ is often used as a metaphor for unconscious biases. Technically, when you are driving a car, blindspot is the area of the road that cannot be seen while looking forward or through either the rear-view or side mirrors. So, cars adjacent to you that fall into these blind spots may not be visible to you. These can lead to wrong actions, decision and even accidents!
On similar lines, unconscious biases shape our likes, dislikes, and judgments about people’s character, abilities and potential. And, they do it without our conscious control or awareness. So, just like our vehicle and its blindspot, unconscious biases too lurk outside our visibility and can lead to wrong actions or decisions.
As a simple test, if you were to ask someone “are you biased?”- your guess is as good as mine on what the answer will be. Even simpler, if you were to ask yourself, “am I biased?” – your most likely response will be “no, not me”. But you might find it much easier to identify five others who are biased!
Let me share a personal experience with my own blindspots and that too as a parent. This happened around 10 years back but I still remember it vividly. My boys (that time aged 4 and 7 years) were playing in the sandpit with two sisters who were visiting us with their mother. After a while, one of the girls came running to her mom crying and complaining that one of the boys had kept throwing sand on her. I immediately called my younger son and confronted him… “why did you throw sand on her?” My son protested saying ‘I didn’t do it’ but I was not listening. After a few minutes of this to and fro exchange, the young girl, through her sobs looked at me and said “Aunty, it’s not him…it’s the one with cool glasses” and I then realized my mistake. My younger son being the mischievous one, I had automatically assumed its him. But all the while, it was my older one who needed to be spoken to.
Our blindspots are more difficult to confront when they are strengthened by repeated experience. Blindspots may also imply that we may perceive our attitudes in one way, but the manifested behavior felt by others may differ significantly.
In the work context, I remember one research study which stated that more than 80% of women say they feel some form of exclusion while more than 90% of men don’t believe they’re excluding women.
Let’s look at blindspots in typical work situations. For instance, in selection, either for a new role or for a project, you may think you are following all the right processes and being fair in your decisions. But if you have a bias against a certain group say you find people from North India very aggressive or less trustworthy; you may find working mothers less committed to work or you have inhibitions about work ethics of people from the LGBT community, then this is likely to influence your action and decision. In a similar way, in retaining talent, the effort you will take to retain a talent might be a function of your preference for or against a group. In the latter case, you might find yourself working at lightning speed to identify replacement CVs even before a formal resignation is put in.
At an organization level, these blindspots, pose the biggest challenge to building inclusion. Imagine a whole bunch of people walking around with their individual blindspots. To top up that, there are also blindspots procreated at functional, BU, team, regional and other levels.
Mere sensitization on unconscious biases doesn’t work, primarily because the whole thing is operating within your blindspot. So, it is very likely for the participants to walk out of these sensitization sessions either with the feeling that “I am not biased so I didn’t really need this session” or “it’s not just me, many people share my views or biases about that group” and hence feel validated!
People also often feel defensive or targeted when going through unconscious bias training. Here it is important to make them realize that biases are common and can be both intentional or unintentional. But what needs to change is the thinking that ‘bias is acceptable’.
So, how do you address this challenge and build the bridge between intent and action?
One approach as stated in a research study, talks about three clear steps. First, people must become aware of their biases and second, they must be concerned about the consequences of their biases. Then and only then can they be motivated to exert effort to eliminate these biases. In all the examples shared above and the many instances of biases you may have come across in life (both at personal or professional front), if you were to think in terms of consequences of these biases, then you are more likely to take effort to eliminate it.
To conclude, just like the simple act of turning our head and checking before changing lane can help to address blindspots on the road, similarly being mindful about blindspots and building inclusive habits can help to address these at work and beyond.
So, let’s get on a journey to light up our blindspots…one bias at a time…and together build a more inclusive society for generations to come.