Breaking Through Bias to Build Inclusion

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Human beings evolved to be extraordinarily social creatures. So strong is this tendency that our brains developed specific neural circuitry to help us “read” and work with others with speed and efficiency. Like all other adaptive capabilities, this helped us protect and feed ourselves better than any other species on the planet.

Part of our social circuitry operates so quickly, that we don’t even recognize that it’s there at all. Within milliseconds, we see other people as a collection of physical attributes that could impact our safety around them. Size, gender, age, skin tone, hair texture, clothing and jewelry, expression and readily detected mannerisms are all noted and assigned meaning. If available, we also scan and evaluate verbal (vocabulary, accent, tone) and olfactory (scent) qualities. Together, these inputs are noted, matched with past first-hand or genetically inherited reference points, which then help us make the most important assessment of all. Are they a friend or foe? To see evidence of biases in action, visit Harvard University’s online Implicit Bias Test. This free series of online profile instruments has been used by thousands of individuals to help them better understand their own automatic preferences and feelings related to skin tone, religion, gender and weight, among other factors.

In addition to basic assessments of friend or foe, we also draw conclusions about social status, intelligence, physical ability, likely disposition and, ultimately, compatibility. The challenge is that many, if not most, of these conclusions are based upon superficial data and our subjective evaluation of the select qualities to which we assign the most importance. Because of this, we often categorize people inaccurately or, at best, incompletely.

A negative effect of biases can be that they lead to the practice of exclusion. Feeling discounted or left out because of who we are can trigger powerful emotions. These emotions are harmful to both individuals and their groups. Organizations that make it difficult (knowingly or not) for employees who do not fit a particular “mold” to feel a part of and contribute their ideas and talents are at a much greater risk for low morale, employee turnover, and, oftentimes, declining customer satisfaction. Other consequences of exclusion can result in the following attitudes or behaviors:

  • Diminished emotional engagement
  • Increased stress-related illnesses
  • Erosion of trust
  • Lower job satisfaction
  • Information hoarding (or hiding)
  • Below average organizational productivity and resilience
  • Above average employee turnover of marginalized employee groups

How to minimize biases in order to build a more inclusive culture

“When we encounter people of a different race (or gender, religion, generation, etc…), pre-learned feelings and expectations can distort what we see. This line of research suggests that if we can greet those encounters with a smile and genuine optimism, we may be able to better see people for who they really are.”
– Kareem Johnson, Ph.D., Asst. Professor of Psychology, Temple University

The good news is that the brain can literally be “re-wired” in an instant. Each time we make the effort to engage others with curiosity, we set in motion powerful learning mechanisms that can quickly replace outdated (or just plain inaccurate) information. Engage in conversations that reveal the authentic essence of who we are, what makes us unique, and the things (or people) that we hold to be important. It is this sharing of invisible information that allows us to better understand and appreciate our differences, as well as discover and connect through our similarities. When practiced consistently, this process allows us to treat co-workers and members of our community truly as individuals, not the collection of superficial demographic groups that we think they are made up of.

One of the reasons why inclusion is such an important goal is that it is experienced the same way by people across the globe. While the behaviors that trigger this experience may vary a bit from group to group and culture to culture, feeling that we are accepted and welcomed for our true selves generates very powerful, favorable, emotions. When this feeling can be created consistently across work groups, job satisfaction and productivity go up and the entire organization benefits. When people feel included in an organization, the following attitudes and behaviors can be seen:

  • Higher sense of purpose and job satisfaction
  • Improved physical and emotional health of staff
  • Increased trust
  • Higher organizational productivity and resilience
  • Improved customer satisfaction
  • Better sharing of information flow and openness to learning
  • Improved ability to attract, develop and retain talented staff

Contributed by Legacy Business Cultures

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