2017, like many recent years, has seen events, both political and environmental, produce a flurry of polarising opinions, interpretations and platforms – many of which seem beyond comprehension to one side or another. In the midst of this, both organisations and governments are looking hard at how they can bring people together across these seemingly impassable divides.
To this end, I have spent nearly all of this year working with clients to help them create a more inclusive and effective culture. While employers may wish their workplace to exist in a perfect bubble, people inevitably bring their biases and prejudices to work. Unfortunately, sometimes these biases can consciously, and unconsciously, put up barriers to communication and working effectively together – or in the case of AppleWatch, completely miss a desirable feature for a product.
So what can be done? For about 15 years, I have been supporting people to work with their biases and how they may unconsciously stifle innovation and make working together difficult. While unconscious biases cannot be removed, some of their negative effects can be reduced by using some simple techniques. Below is an overview of the approach I have developed after working on and researching this subject for some time – see this article I wrote in 2016.
I hope you find some tips for yourself and leading your teams.
The irony is, you may not notice what your unconscious is thinking – and that is the point, you can’t consciously know your unconscious. The thing is, trying to “think differently” doesn’t help, you must ACT to mitigate unconscious bias!
And when I say ACT I mean:
- ARTICULATE an alternative point of view
- CREATE COMMONALITY – establish common ground and goals
- TEST IT – ask for more information to test your ideas
And the pneumonic is key: You must take ACTion and actually DO things that reduce your bias, not just think you should be open-minded. Below are some typical situations with simple suggestions of things you can do to get over some suspected biases. They have been shown to help people work more effectively with colleagues and clients, in interviews and in meetings. They are examples which encourage ACTion rather than thought as the main tool to mitigate bias:
1) Articulate Alternative POV:
We often make judgements about people we spend less time with. This show up a lot with new joiners and people in other departments/teams. To apply this approach, begin by asking:
- What are your assumptions about this person?
- Where did they come from?
- What could be an alternative perspective be?
Take this example sometimes levelled at older colleagues:
Point of View 1: They are so stuck in their ways.
Alternative point of view: They’ve learnt a lot about what works for them.
You can apply this in many other situations where prejudices arise, particularly when there are differences in power. Try looking at the following:
- What are your beliefs about yourself and your autonomy?
- What are your beliefs about others, specifically those at different levels to you?
- What might their beliefs about you be?
- And do these assumptions help or hinder your performance and contribution?
- Finish by coming up with an alternative, but plausible view-point that could change your perspective on them or yourself.
In summary, to work with prejudice, first identify your assumptions, then ask, “What might be an Alternative position or approach that might improve your desire to work with them?” Articulate that view to yourself, write it down, perhaps even tell others – even if you are just trying it out.
2) Create commonality
When working with people you find difficult or don’t know, finding out more about them or focusing on common goals can help you move past prejudice to work more effectively together. It sounds obvious, but common sense isn’t always common practice. It’s important to understand yourself what the common purpose of a conversation is and it also helps to make these goals known by those you are working with. For example:
We are here to decide what can save us all time in the long run.
3) Test your assumptions
Finally, we can get caught in assumptions when we are excited about something or have been working on something for a long period of time. Both of these situations are prone to the influence of unconscious assumptions. So, when working with new clients, products or teams, are you able to help test your ideas to ensure you’re working toward the best possible outcome? Here are some tips:
A) Make your assumptions explicit: write them down, tell other people what they are
B) Enjoy getting it wrong: at least once, try to come at the problem with ignorance, foolishness or just a different perspective
C) Ask for other people’s perceptions
D) Use open questions to find out more
Doing at least two or three of the above will help you identify opportunities that you might miss and make your meetings – and products – more effective!
That’s what it means to ACT on unconscious bias – let me know how you get on?
A final note: Unconscious shortcuts are particularly prevalent under pressure or in complex situations. While the above may seem simple, I would recommend choosing not more than one situation a day to test your biases and try an ACT approach. Otherwise, you will get exhausted and end up being biased anyway.