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Difficult Conversations: How unconscious bias creates subconscious barriers to change

Difficult Conversations: How unconscious bias creates subconscious barriers to change
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A recent report published by McKinsey titled Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters (May 19, 2020) reinforces a well-known fact that companies in the top quartile for gender, ethnic and cultural diversity outperform their peers by between 25 to 36% year on year. It certainly won’t come as a surprise to many that, in addition to performance, workplaces with a more diverse workforce show improved talent attraction and retention, customer satisfaction, financial performance, and creativity.

And yet, despite the litany of evidence published to date to support this, organisations remain slow to adopt diversity initiatives.

Why is change in diversity so slow?

One long-considered barrier to change is our predisposition to unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is hardwired into all of us. It influences how we make decisions or assessments grounded in our childhood, how we were socialised and our experiences. The impact of our unconscious bias on our decisions is dramatic. It directly affects our hiring and promotion decisions, what we read, the company we keep to the advice we provide to our organisations and clients.

In his recent book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed proposed that a critical component of future-proofing organisations to meet the ever-changing environment in which they operate is the introduction of cognitive diversity. The challenges governments, businesses and societies face are so significant and multifaceted that groupthink is no longer adequate to shift the needle to address, even on a fundamental level, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030. On an organisational level, it does not take a genius to see that without transforming organisations to value diversity in all its guises, economic growth and long-term sustainability could be relegated to a strategy paper long since mothballed.

In the wise words of Albert Einstein, insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Healthy discourse is uncomfortable but necessary

Given that we are predisposed to unconscious bias and to consume information that reinforces our perspectives and value systems, I would argue that organisations must push themselves to create an environment that encourages healthy debate and an exchange of ideas.

The rate of change is severely hampered by the inherent establishment of organisations founded on cultural and cognitive consensus, reinforcing our unconscious bias. Hiring practices reaffirm that like-minded individuals are brought on board, and individuals who “will not fit into the culture” are naturally excluded. We celebrate it when our teams are cohesive and aligned and discourage dissention. 

Considering the challenging environment in which we live and operate, it beggars belief that we continue to wheel out the same tried and tested methods. We have not grasped that the problems we face today are so complex and multi-layered that the only way forward is to bring together different ideas that can shift our thinking towards a workable solution.

Creating debate opens the door to a necessary level of healthy discourse. It is important to clarify at this point that a healthy debate is an exchange of ideas where everyone’s voice is given an opportunity to be heard – it is not about being the loudest voice. But encouraging debate alone will not help expand thinking and encourage a level of vulnerability for people to share their experiences. This is only possible if organisations can create an environment where employees feel supported and safe to share, challenge and debate to move change forward. 

Where to from here for diversity and unconscious bias?

The way forward is not paved with gold but with pebbles and stones. It is uncomfortable and sometimes a bit unsteady given that cognitive diversity requires everyone, but more particularly leaders, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. While encouraging healthy debate is a solid step forward, it cannot be the only intervention. It requires leaders to seek out perspectives different from their own; to acknowledge that a designation in an organisation does not equate to being the most knowledgeable person in the room. And that experience, age, race, gender and different perspective provide the lifeblood critical to problem-solving.

It accepts that challenging perspectives do not mean individuals are not team players. Standing out from the crowd on an idea might just be the unconventional perspective we need to push our creativity. And it will require a radical shift in hiring practices that embrace rather than reject differences.

More than that, we must acknowledge that time is not on our side. That radical problem solving to improve cognitive, gender and ethnic diversity remain a critical driver to secure a sustainable future.

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