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How to banish unconscious bias to promote diversity in your workplace

When my mum worked in retail, I can still remember her saying: “If the cash register always balances, then you don’t know how big your problem is”. It sounds contradictory, but the reality is that we’re all human. The only way the cash register will balance seven days per week, 365 days per year – no exceptions, no mistakes­ – is if someone is fiddling the books.

In the same way, any manager or leader who says they’re without bias – no exceptions, no mistakes­ – is not being honest with themselves. Nobody is bias-free; if you have a brain, you have bias. It’s an important survival mechanism. Or as Hillary Clinton put it during the first 2016 US presidential debate: “implicit bias is a problem for everyone”.

A good leader, then, will recognise their own biases and double-down on their attempts to overcome them. At the same time, they’ll embed a diversity and inclusion agenda throughout the entire organisation.

This article looks at the ways leaders can address bias, leverage diversity and practice inclusive behaviour at an organisational and team level. It also provides practical steps for mitigating bias in your personal leadership style. First, however, let’s spend a moment considering the rationale behind a diversity agenda, because the numbers speak for themselves.

Why diversity matters: The business case for banishing unconscious bias

The case for creating a genuinely diverse and inclusive workforce is compelling. By seeking out employees of different races, ethnicities, genders, ages, religions, abilities and sexual orientations, organisations have an opportunity to capture a richness of thought and experience. Show me an organisation that wouldn’t want to harness the value of that in today’s chaotic world.

Diversity brings higher value collective intelligence and drives innovation. Instead of two or three approaches to any problem, a diverse organisation is endowed with many solutions and Harvard Business Review found that diverse companies are 70% likelier to capture a new market. Leveraging diversity and practising inclusion offers endless potential and opportunity – but you need both to optimise it.

And for anyone who needs any more convincing, consider this: The government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency report (2020) found that profitability, performance and productivity increase under female leadership and female top-tier managers add 6.6% to the market value of ASX-listed companies (worth the equivalent of AUD$104.7 million). McKinsey’s Diversity Matters report found companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. While Forbes reports that inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time.

At the same time, investors increasingly expect to see disclosures around environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) measures. The allocation of capital is informed by these measures and if your organisation isn’t serious about diversity and inclusion – or you lack metrics around inclusion – then expect to miss out on investment.

Promoting diversity and banishing unconscious bias is a no-brainer.

How can leaders address bias, diversity and inclusive behaviour at an organisational level?

The first hurdle many managers and leaders face is quantifying (and qualifying) the extent of bias within their organisation.

Sometimes a lack of diversity is obvious. (For instance, not a single female CEO was appointed to ASX 200 companies in the past financial year.) Other times, however, a problem with diversity and inclusion can be harder to spot, especially when it comes to diversity of thought.

True workplace diversity encompasses a range of experiences, educational backgrounds, skillsets, beliefs, operating styles and personalities, and these things are harder to measure. Inclusion also means harnessing the contributions of neurodiverse thinkers, including those with dyslexia or those on the autism spectrum.

A lack of data around diversity is a serious issue for many organisations. Diagnostics can be helpful. For instance, IML ANZ’s DiSC behavioural profiling tools categorise employees based on four personal dimensions: dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness. The DiSC tools cover: needs, tendencies, preferred environments and communication styles and are a powerful way for leaders to see the full breadth of thinking styles that are available within the organisation.

In addition to diagnostics, managers and leaders must structure the organisation for equity.

This means putting systems in place to create a level playing field for under-represented groups, including, but not limited to:

  • recruitment practices
  • hiring practices
  • promotion practices
  • development practices.

We shouldn’t stop there, however, the concept of “Culture Add” rather than the traditional “Culture Fit”, when making these decisions, offers tremendous opportunity to add assets we would have previously (unconsciously) counted out. It requires a mindset ‘flip’ – but once your eyes are open to its potential value, you become aware of a world of opportunity you’ve previously failed to recognise.

Australia is facing a chronic skills shortage right now, partly as a result of global restrictions on labour movement. Any manager that broadens their recruitment net to a bigger pool of potential talent will likely boost their organisation’s diversity and enjoy a competitive advantage to boot.

Deb Travers-Wolf MIML

Three steps for preventing bias in your personal leadership style

Of course, a good leader doesn’t just promote diversity at an organisational level – they also walk the talk – that’s the all-important inclusive behaviour. How, then, can managers and leaders overcome their own inherent biases in their personal leadership styles?

Here’s three practical steps:

  1. It all starts with your mindset

What’s your leadership mindset? Are you ‘an expert’ or ‘an explorer’? Let me explain. I once had a university lecturer who stood in front of our class and maintained he was the global expert on that week’s topic. He’d studied at world-class universities; he’d read everything currently published; there was no one who knew more than him. And while it’s true he was very learned, today, it just isn’t possible to know everything about any topic in every context.  The world has changed and as leaders, we must too.

Those managers and leaders who consider themselves to be explorers are more likely to seek out ideas and perspectives that are dissimilar to their own, and their teams will be all the better for it. Practising inclusion – by going out of your way to uncover and value difference – is a conscious decision for so many of us who have been historically valued as experts.

  1. Ask curious questions

It sounds like an obvious skill for an effective leader but curiosity can’t be underestimated. Particularly in the (increasingly common) hybrid work environment. This means consciously giving everyone equal airtime, not just the extroverts in the room. (True, their input is valuable but so are the (often more considered) ideas from the introvert who has listened and analysed, whilst others have been speaking.)

This also means giving everyone equal attention and respect. We’ve all heard about the female board member whose suggestion was ignored, only to have the idea praised when it came out of the mouth of the male sitting next to her. Give equal gravitas to all voices at the table. Make everyone feel listened to.

Finally, good questions focus on what hasn’t been mentioned. This goes back to my mum’s comments about a suspiciously balanced cash register. When you’re speaking with colleagues and teams ask yourself: What is it I’m not hearing? What’s the feedback someone’s too afraid to give? What’s the alternative opinion that hasn’t been put forward? What’s the unvoiced perspective here?

  1. Create a safe environment to debate

Of course, asking curious questions means nothing if you haven’t fostered an environment where people feel safe to offer their own unique answers. Psychological safety is key to inclusion and diversity. Consider, for instance, how you receive unwelcome feedback or information. Do you respond angrily or impetuously even if the person delivering the news isn’t at fault? By shooting the messenger we close communication channels and can lose valuable contributions, not just in that moment, but also for the future. People have very sensitive radars for potential threats to their status or credibility and they’ll play it safe if they feel it’s risky to air their views.

Increasingly, boards of directors use a skills matrix so that each board member is selected based on a specific, required contribution. Effectively it’s a jigsaw puzzle, with the goal being to complete the whole puzzle. One person may have accounting qualifications, while another brings industry experience. This means everyone is acutely aware that each director is bringing something to the table and all opinions are respected accordingly. It’s also common practice for the Chair to ask for every individual’s perspective on a topic. It’s an approach any team, at any level, can find value in.

Leaders can take it one step further by actively inviting dissent and debate. A fast, effective approach is to appoint a “devil’s advocate” – someone who has explicit permission to challenge the status quo. (It’s important to rotate the role, so it’s not the same person always challenging the dominant team narrative!)

An environment where it’s safe to explore, ask and debate is more likely to generate new ideas and identify hidden problems – such as a cash register that appears to balance with unerring, uncanny accuracy. And who knows? That team may also come up with an innovative new idea, which will render the cash register a relic of the past!

Deb Travers-Wolf is a Member of IML ANZ and the CEO and founder of I LEAD Consulting.


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