Being inclusive at work: how to check your own unconscious bias

At high school we all had a sense of what the social hierarchy was and where we fitted.

We may like to think we outgrew this social strata in high school but the stark reality is that this follows us all through our lives to some degree. It becomes more masked by politeness when we enter the workplace but the same intricate pattern of relationships still exists.

Social relationships on the workplace

The quality of your work and your intellect is an important foundation to success in the workplace but human nature means that relationships can easily trump that. The good side of social relationships at work can be described as emotional intelligence, networking or stakeholder management. The ugly side can be called unconscious bias, which is when we are unaware of our automatic responses that disadvantage others or ourselves. This is a hot topic and its been shown to be one of the most significant barriers to companies building diversity and inclusion.

Feeling at ease

When it comes to talking about diversity and inclusion our default tends to be the visible factors like flexible working, pay parity and discrimination. While managing these things are hugely important, they can be the tip of the iceberg. So what lies underneath? All those factors that signaled to you in high school where you stood. Going back to those years, did you feel equally at ease in every group? If you were a sporty kid, did you feel at home with the brilliant chess genius kids? It’s vastly easier for us to make friends and feel comfortable with those that are similar to us. Without being consciously aware of it we gravitate to those people at work and at home. Those we unconsciously assess as being in our inner circle end up being the ones we go for coffee with, offer advice to, sit next to in meetings, give encouragement to, make more eye contact with, provide small opportunities to and generally make feel included. We don’t tend to be aware we are doing this or that those who don’t get this same attention end up with a sense of disengagement and lack of confidence over time. Any person that is in a minority in the workplace faces this to some degree – even middle-aged white men when they are surrounded by a group of women – although this doesn’t tend to last long enough to impact their confidence or engagement!

So what does this mean when translated to your work environment?

In a work setting, relationships with decision makers and influencers are key to getting the seemingly small work opportunities that build a reputation and career over time. One example that women often report is feeling like a bit of the odd one out when in a “blokey and jokey” work setting where updates on others in the “old boys club”, rugby, male orientated jokes or other similar topics are a large part of the conversation. That’s not enough in itself but added up with lots of micro moments it builds up to a feeling of being on the out. Over time that means women become unconsciously less inclined to attend social events like client drinks and may get labeled as having a development gap in “networking” There are many more examples like this. It’s all the things that are individually so small and subtle it’s hard to piece together but in total it’s hugely meaningful and creates the inclusiveness or otherwise of the workplace. It’s near impossible to reverse this effect without awareness of your own behaviour and that of others. So training in bias, self-reflection and 360 feedback is a great way to start building more inclusive leadership.

How do I make inclusion simpler and more pragmatic?

Here are three powerful things every leader, including you, can be doing:

  • Go out of your way to build a relationship with someone who is outside your natural group,
  • Watch for signs that someone is feeling excluded in a group and make an effort to bring them into the conversation and
  • When you provide work opportunities – stop and consider who you give it to and if there is a way you can shape it up to provide it to someone other than the usual suspects.

In a similar way if you’re on the outer you can consider:

  • Are there people in influential roles (often controlling work flow) that you can make a concerted effort to build a relationship with?
  • Take “Lean in” opportunities when they arise as Sheryl Sandberg talks about and ask for work opportunities where you suspect there may be bias preventing them being offered to you e.g. urgent client work when you work flexi-hours as a working mother and
  • In groups where you struggle to be heard, talk to an influencer such as the meeting facilitator about helping you make space to contribute.

Unconscious bias is hot topic that has much complexity to it but if you break it down you can most definitely take pragmatic steps to increase the inclusivity of your leadership and the culture around you. It’s great to be able to define some practical actions for yourself when sometimes our progress on diversity can seem all to slow. We encourage you to take some time to think about what you can do differently from today!

By Sarah Naude and Matt Stanley of Propero Consulting.

About Propero Consulting: Propero Consulting is a New Zealand company with an international reputation for developing and delivering market- leading Board of Director and D&I Services.

Sarah Naudé: Sarah is an industrial/ organisational psychologist with 15 years of experience in some of New Zealand’s largest organisations. In addition to her board expertise, Sarah has consulted in the manufacturing industry; worked in senior organisational development roles in Telecom and Fletcher Building; and spent five years working as a Psychologist and Specialist Officer in the New Zealand Navy.

Matt Stanley: Matt’s career as a senior HR leader has spanned 20 years within major corporations in New Zealand and Australia. In addition to his board expertise, Matt has a strong background in executive assessment, development and coaching; remuneration design and execution; and performance management.