Battling Unconscious Bias

Almost no one will admit that they’re biased. But the truth is that we all carry biases, whether we acknowledge them or not—and this is a time when we’re being challenged to face them. Biases run deep: they’re rooted in our cultures, our societies, and our own inherent subjectivity. And organizations can carry the same biases that people do—most of them implicit or unconscious.

This is a hard thing for leaders to really acknowledge or look at. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my recent conversations with leadership experts, we are fully responsible for creating the change we want to see, both within our organizations and within our communities. We can’t separate ourselves from the organization and say that diversity is an HR issue. It’s a cultural issue, and culture begins with leaders and the decisions we make to act.

The Black Lives Matter movement was a wake-up call for us. We thought we’d done enough by having certain protocols in place and supporting diversity. But this is too big an issue to tackle passively, too universal to be confined within our walls. I knew that we, I, had to take a stance in order to make an impact.

Human rights are not politics. Not taking a stance reinforces unconscious biases in the workplace and beyond; it derails rather than drives inclusivity. As leaders, we create cultures, we influence people, and we have a responsibility to act. By starting to build awareness in ourselves and into our cultures along with the resolve to act intentionally.

Cultivating awareness

“Change how you understand what it means to be racist, and then act on that understanding.” – Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

So what does it mean to “act intentionally?” In my recent conversation with Rand Stagen of the Stagen Academy for Leaders, we talked about the importance of awareness and action.

awareness vs action unconscious bias in the workplace

In the model above, he illustrates how action without awareness can cause distress because often, these actions are ineffective. Awareness without action, on the other hand, causes impotence, essentially stranding you in the status quo.

So you can see why this is a crucial time for self-awareness, and we’re being faced with such a reckoning as a society. As a leader, I had to look at my own beliefs and biases in order to show up in a real way for the organization. In my talk with Rand, one anecdote stood out about the way he trains conscious leaders: When someone comes complaining about someone or something in their organization that isn’t going right, he challenges that leader to assess how it reflects on them. What is the real desi behind the frustration–the thing that isn’t being personally fulfilled? The lesson here being: Your organization is a reflection of you and if something is going wrong, maybe you’re not showing up in the right way.

For us at Headspring, having a set of core values that we created together as a company served as a valuable foundation from which to build. We were able to take stock, reflect and confirm the beliefs we shared as a company and use them as a compass to guide our actions. I knew it was important to take a hard look at areas where we weren’t showing up, so I invited the company in as well to share ideas about where and how we could improve.

Building awareness became a collaborative effort, and I think sharing that awareness is critical to making an impact. When you start thinking of your organization as a community of stakeholders—instead of a group of employees—you’ll find that you’re much better positioned to create the kind of change that serves them.

The stakeholder model

This “community” concept is part of the stakeholder model that has always been important to us. You can look at it as a modernized version of the service profit chain. Under the Stakeholder Model, your brand is an extension of your leaders, your team, your customers, and other external stakeholders, and these groups are likewise an extension of your brand. That’s why it’s important that your brand represent the interests of the entire community of people whom you serve.

Examples of internal and external stakeholders

unconscious bias in the workplace

A visualization of how the impact we have on our people can resonate outward into the world.

Moving away from transactional mindsets and embracing value-creation can help us breed empathy into our organizations and our actions. For example, as leaders, we may not always be aware of the racism or deep-seated biases that our employees or other stakeholders experience. If we want to protect and grow our communities, it’s our responsibility to uproot and address these issues.

Starting internally is ok, because your people are your brand, and how your brand shows up will determine the impact you make within the greater community. We strive to create an honest and open communication-flow through our organization at all times. When the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, we didn’t want to be tone-deaf by keeping this significant issue out of our company communications. Instead, we talked about it in our all-hands meeting and sent a survey around to ask employees what they were experiencing, feeling, and thinking. Employees stepped up with actionable ideas on how we could help elevate awareness within our community and step up our diversity efforts internally.

Battling unconscious bias in the workplace

Addressing the biases hidden in ourselves or our organizations is not a comfortable process—but it’s a critical step in creating change that is meaningful. Referring back to that action vs. awareness model, company’s can really fumble by simply “reacting” to a problem with shallow gestures that can seem insubstantial or even inappropriate in retrospect.

Companies may have great intentions in proclaiming their solidarity, etc., but we have to look at intention vs. impact. You can assume good intentions (“I’m not a racist!” “We’re so diverse!”), but that’s not enough. These self-congratulatory beliefs might actually block us from becoming aware of our unconscious biases and evaluating the impact our actions actually have. Without doing the work to raise self-awareness, any action we take is a Band-aid.

To be biased is human, but to be aware is to evolve. We all move through the world, looking at things from our own lenses, assigning our own meaning to every experience. On top of that, we assimilate meanings that have been hard-coded within our culture. We’re largely unaware of the effect these beliefs have on us and how we perceive the world—which is why they’re such a challenge to overcome.

Organizations ultimately reflect the unconscious biases of the people they’re composed of. For example, think of the hidden biases in the words that you use in your company communications; imagery you’ve chosen to represent your brand; policies you promote that may not be fully inclusive. And, yes, of course, your hiring practices. We all have areas where we can improve. The important thing to remember is that once you learn something, you can unlearn it: Becoming aware of where biases are hidden and how they impact people can help us root them out.

One of the initiatives that came out of our employee feedback survey was aimed at spreading awareness of our own inherent biases and those embedded in our culture. Employees came up with a program that enables each person to purchase a book on the company dollar that addresses cultural bias and diversity issues. They also put together a great list of resources for finding reads on race*. What struck me is that this was a humbling moment for all of us in the company: We acknowledged what we didn’t know and wanted to learn more so we could act more consciously. We’re all looking at this as an opportunity to examine our own beliefs and actions and to grow. Taking steps, together, towards conscious action will put us on a path towards truly transformational change.

Choosing how to act

Acting with intention is one of the key tenets of mindfulness‚ which I’ll argue is one of the most important traits leaders today can possess. It’s not easy or natural, in most cases, to simply choose how to act, and it’s okay to acknowledge that.

In my conversation with Small Giants CEO Hamsa Daher, I talked about my own initial reactions to what happened when COVID-19 first hit. First, there was grief: “Why is this happening?” Then, anger: “Why is this happening TO me?” Then finally, some kind of acceptance of our “new normal.” It’s only once I reached an acceptance stage that I could look towards any kind of future or find opportunities.

Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like what’s going on, simply that you aren’t letting it control your reactions. Instead, you can choose to focus on what you can influence and who you can actually impact with your actions. You choose to relate to what’s going on by bringing your most resourceful self forward, instead of lapsing into stress-responses or total detachment.

I believe this is especially important as it relates to the huge call-to-action we face today to protect human rights and lives. If we detach,  we exacerbate the problem; if we react unconsciously, we miss opportunities to make a lasting impact. In choosing how to respond to this grave call, I decided that any action we take needs to meet three criteria:

  • Be deliberate instead of reactive
  • Be sustainable and lasting
  • Make a meaningful impact on our culture, business, and local communities

As a leader, I believe building change into our own cultures and our own communities is one of the most important things we can do. We can root out unconscious bias in the workplace and cultivate new ways of thinking and acting that benefit everyone and that will. At Headspring, we’ve begun by knowledge-sharing, donation-matching, and taking a hard look at our principles and practices. But we’re also thinking long term about how we can create a community that not only supports but promotes diversity and inclusivity within our walls and behind. This is a time for action—but also a time for heightened awareness and intention. As leaders, that starts with us. By building awareness and rooting out biases in our own cultures, we can collectively help our society to level up.


*Antiracism Reading Lists:


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