16 August 2016


Our Views

Unconscious bias and organisational balance

As a student, I was drawn to anthropology – the study of human culture – because it engaged me on two levels. The first was my curiosity about trying to understand the world I live in; the second was about listening to the stories of individual people. The beauty of anthropology is that it seeks to examine both the general and the local, and to find the ways in which they balance and shed light on each other.

Nowadays, as I think, teach, and write about unconscious bias and employee engagement, I find this balance lacking, and therefore, we’re probably missing an opportunity to understand and address some vital questions. What does our approach to unconscious bias, for example, say about our culture as a whole?

We’re so focused on the detail – what is this particular company’s policy? How is that individual handling an obstacle? – that we fail to see the bigger picture that links everything together. And that means we fail to see bigger patterns that might help us move forward.

Equally, if we only focus on the big picture – the theoretical – we’ll miss out on the kaleidoscope of human experience, the stories that bring theory to life.

Here’s an example of what happens when we focus on theory, and ignore individual stories.

A few months ago, I led a two-day training course. After the first day, we all – myself and the attendees – had dinner together. Most people had a few drinks. There was a football match on in the adjoining lounge, and several attendees went off to watch it after dinner.

The next day, everyone turned up at 8.30 am on the dot. Well, almost everyone.

At around 10am, one young man, Tom, rolled in, looking a bit worse for the wear.

Many of us assumed, I think it is fair to say, that he had had a few too many drinks while watching the football – and, after all, he was in his early twenties. That’s what people in their early twenties do, right?

My policy is to always treat people as adults. If Tom wanted to show up late, that was up to him. However, I can’t deny that I also thought this was why he was late. I heard others in the group tutting – after all, this was still a work event, and a certain level of professional behaviour was expected.

During a break, the HR lead spoke to Tom. It transpired that his brother had been in a terrible car accident and was in hospital. It had been really touch and go. The only thing that stopped him from going to his brother’s bedside was that he was hours and hours away. So he waited by the telephone. Only when he found out that his brother had stabilised, did he join us.

In retrospect, even my neutral stance turns out to have been a bad choice, as I failed to offer another person moral support, and I’ve subsequently changed how I behave when things like this happen.

When people make a judgment without having all the necessary information, as we did in the case above, it is a bias called Fundamental Attribution Error.

We saw this equation:

Lots of beer + unshaven / scruffy + young + man + football = late!!

Of course, the correct equation was:

Bad news = scruffy / unshaven + late

In this example, you can see how people used a general narrative (the first equation) to explain a particular individual’s behaviour. It was only by asking Tom what had happened that our assumptions were disproved, causing us to arrive instead at the second equation.

Now apply this to something like flexible working. Generally speaking, the people who tend to take advantage of flexible working are parents. The general narrative that is told about people who don’t come to work is that they’re not committed.

Time off work = lack of commitment

For many organisations, including perhaps managers, colleagues, HR, etc., this easily morphs into the equation:

Flexible working = lack of commitment

But when you figure in the complexity and nuance of our lives, then being able to engage in all the things that make us human, people should quickly realise that the real equation is:

My company offers flexibility = I’m valued + I’m trusted + I’m more committed

If this second equation underpinned the organisational culture of more companies, perhaps individuals would feel more free to pursue flexible working – to explore the sides of themselves that aren’t directly work-related – not just when they have to, but when they would like to. It’d be a different kind of world.

There’s a bigger question here about what “work” has come to be and mean in our western, English-speaking society, and the individual stories that balance that narrative will need to be looked at within that context. It’s only this kind of reflective understanding of our world that will move the world of work forward. But that is for another day.

Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on unconscious bias, diversity awareness and employee engagement. Every project Jasmine has been involved with has examined the practical application of ideas.
Before moving to London, she was a professor at the State University of New York, teaching cross cultural studies for international business majors.

If you’d like to read her book, you can find it on Amazon. You can also read her column on HRZone.

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