What is TD's role in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives now that they've surged to the forefront of workplace priorities?
This past summer, leaders across the US, and ultimately the world, faced unprecedented challenges. Just as they'd begun to acclimate to the new reality of a global pandemic and varying stages of reopening, a second significant set of events occurred. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd gave way to global protests in late May and pushed organizations to confront racial injustice, equity, and inclusion in a way they had never done before.
Black employees were not OK and focused on coping with the continued weight of racial injustice at work. White and nonblack personnel worked hard to build empathy and cultural competence in this topic. And leaders scrambled to issue statements that communicated support while also building internal diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging programs that ensured those statements lived off the page.
That focus and energy on race in society and in the workplace have opened the door to a never-before-seen focus on DEI and what it means to be a truly inclusive company where every employee can contribute their best. Many organizations received criticism for issuing statements of solidarity around the protests but not having a more robust DEI strategy in place. And more broadly, D&I initiatives have existed for the past 50 years, and yet many organizations struggle to achieve results in that area.
While I can empathize with that critique, I'm incredibly hopeful about this moment in time and the resourcing and strategic support talent development, HR, and DEI professionals have received to effect real and substantial change in their organizational cultures. As the dust has settled on the initial push of the summer and talent development professionals consider what to do now in their role as advisor, expert, and strategist, consider the following four mindsets.
Bias is affecting organizations' performance
Socrates said the beginning of wisdom is the understanding of terms. For this article's purposes, bias is simply a preference in favor of or against a thing, person, or group compared to another. And that word preference is important because people often hear bias defined as prejudice, stereotype, or some other inherently bad terminology. But bias helps individuals navigate the world as their brain faces 11 billion bits of information at any given moment and can only actively process 40 of those bits.
Bias—and specifically unconscious or implicit bias—is a term that triggers significant emotion for many people. As I engage with leaders around the world, my experience has been that they are quite often viscerally defensive to dialogue around unconscious or implicit bias. But to be human is to have bias, and biases can have significant impact on a person's decisions, opportunities, and performance. Understanding bias in your organization and facilitating dialogue with your organization's leaders around where bias can show up in the company are critical steps to making progress on DEI.
A person's biases and preferences can have benign positive or negative consequences. While unconscious biases don't have value on their face, they do affect a person's behavior, and that behavior has a consequence that can limit or enhance performance.
For example, a leader may have a bias around longevity in the organization, ignoring new employees' ideas in favor of those from individuals with more tenure in the company, effectively stamping out opportunities for innovation and implicitly suggesting that newer employees should not share their ideas. Leaders may have bias around identity that can have more insidious impacts, such as interviewing two candidates and asking the black candidate administrative questions about showing up on time, professional attire, and diction while asking the white candidate questions about the job's substantive requirements, how to solve problems, or ideas for improvement.
Sometimes such biases come out in how a leader responds to an off-color joke or who gets invited to lunch or the meeting after the meeting. Helping leaders understand the connection between their biases and their behavior is critical through training, coaching, and building opportunities for real assessment and feedback specific to bias.
You can make progress on bias
Once TD professionals understand bias's role on leadership, team, and organizational culture, they can achieve positive breakthroughs by applying the bias progress model. A lot of dialogue and learning about unconscious bias focuses almost exclusively on proving its existence—the neuroscience, devillainizing bias, and vocabulary building around different types of biases such as confirmation bias (people tend to seek out information that supports their existing beliefs), negativity bias (people are more powerfully influenced by negative experiences than positive or neutral experiences), or attribution bias (people judge others on their actions but judge themselves based on their own intent). That is important work but also only the beginning.
Someone who identifies their biases is grounded in two big ideas. First, there is a deep connection between a person's identity and the biases that individual holds. People's biases are borne from everything that's been poured into them over their lifetimes, from innate tendencies such as introversion and extroversion to experiences that form how individuals approach risk, their culture, context, and education.
If people can see self-awareness as a heavy lift, a deep intellectual pursuit, they can uncover the origin stories of their biases. For example, an employee can recognize that he is more comfortable working for a male leader because he had a negative experience with a female leader or feels defensive about how bold a female leader is. Or another employee can understand the characteristics and traits she values and think about what that means for how she identifies leadership potential or whose ideas get implemented.
The second big idea is focused on the human brain and understanding when someone is most susceptible to biased thinking. Every time someone feels a sense of surprise in a conversation, there is an assumption there, a preconceived notion that informs that individual's preference about the other person or circumstance.
Let's face it: People are often overwhelmed, have high emotion, and need to act quickly. What is 21st-century leadership, particularly in this moment, if not plagued by high expectations and too few hours in the day? Consider the more insidious impacts of bias: Seventy-one percent of leaders select protégés of the same race and gender, and employees on the receiving end of bias are three times more likely to be disengaged, withhold ideas, and leave their job within a year. Those facts make a case for slowing down. If, as strategists and advisors, TD professionals can build skills of empathy and curiosity across their leaders and teams, they can move the needle in inclusion by cultivating meaningful connection.
Empathy and curiosity are really two sides of the same coin. Empathy is the interpersonal approach to connection. It is the reality that humans meet people and feel connected to them and are naturally interested in their thoughts, ideas, and journey. That connection is often based on some aspect of similarity—be it parenthood or academic background or race, gender, or orientation.
Curiosity is the intellectual pursuit of connection, and one can see curiosity in spades in children. They ask meaningful questions, listen intently to the response, and formulate follow-up questions that dive deeper into the topic. As people get older and as they become more senior in their roles, they lose some of that curiosity. Adults are accustomed to knowing the right answer and following their instincts on important decisions.
People assume they know, and they don't always take the time to investigate whether that assumption is the best decision or even accurate. If employees use the skill of curiosity, particularly in cases where they don't have a natural connection, their empathy grows. For example, most leaders have a go-to cadre—one or more direct reports whom they trust implicitly with critical projects, nuanced decisions, and complicated endeavors. Over time, that inner cadre receives significantly more exposure to the team's strategy, insight into how the leader makes decisions, and experience working on high-profile projects.
But if those leaders took the time to learn more about the interests, motivations, and skills across their teams, they would likely find they have other high-potential employees who haven't received the same access as their inner cadre. That intentional effort is how TD professionals make progress on what leaders look like in organizations.
Making progress on bias requires individuals to choose courage every day. I think about courage in four ways.
Courage to identify. Bringing the unconscious to consciousness and identifying problematic biases one may hold takes courage. It's uncomfortable and in conflict with the sense all people have that they are fair and just and good. Consider deploying a 360-degree assessment for your leaders that speaks to bias in their decision making and their inclusion competence.
Courage to cope. Being on the receiving end of bias does real harm to a person's overall sense of well-being. Recentering themselves through self-care, setting appropriate boundaries, seeking support, and having potentially difficult and confrontational conversations takes courage. Ensure that employees have multiple mechanisms for wellness and support, such as employee assistance programs, access to appropriate L&D, and employee resource groups.
Courage to be an ally. An employee throwing themselves in the fray of bias that does not affect that person directly is also courageous, and doing so in a way that doesn't overtake the person or people the employee seeks to support is difficult. Consider education and communications that specifically highlight how to be an effective ally—what actions to take, what language to use, and how to build competence without burdening the population the ally is trying to support.
Courage to advocate. There are moments, certainly this moment where DEI has been pushed forward globally as an imperative, where everyone has the opportunity to advocate for change. Advocacy can feel risky. You know your organization is focused on business results, and a DEI conversation is not a sales conversation or operations discussion. But it is as important, and the courage to advocate is an accelerant for change.
Data can be a compelling tool for advocacy. Do you know and understand your organization's data around the talent life cycle—how people get into the organization and levels of retention, engagement, and promotion across the organization by demographic and team? That data will tell a story that not only informs your advocacy but also gives you and your leadership a clear goal on what success looks like.
The talent life cycle is everyone's responsibility
Many leaders see DEI as the responsibility of HR alone or, if the company has a DEI team or chief diversity officer, the responsibility of those with an official title. Leaders often don't see their role in DEI as it relates to the talent life cycle.
Although your organization has its own version of the talent life cycle that is likely far more detailed, the employee experience can be broadly grouped into three categories: getting hired, contributing and engaging, and moving up. Stated more simply: how a person gets in, what happens once they're there, and what their opportunity looks like.
Each component of the talent life cycle is the responsibility of every leader in the organization. They get paid the big bucks to not only understand the talent life cycle but also affect and influence it. That new mindset can be overwhelming, and leaders may feel like they need to learn a whole new job on top of the one they already have. In your TD role, focusing on some initial best practices, in the form of questions, as you support leaders in this new mindset can make all the difference.
- Language matters. Does any of the language in a job description or job advertisement unnecessarily close who may see themselves in that role? For example, pronouns, prior work experience, or qualifications that may not be needed but are in place due to legacy or who formerly held the role.
- Hiring panels. Are you collaborating to ensure multiple perspectives are part of the hiring process?
Contributing and engaging:
- Onboarding. What do the first 90 days look like on your team? Does it look different for some people than it does for others?
- Opportunity. How is work assigned? Does the team have equal access to your time and insights? If they don't, what explains the difference?
- Goals. Can you articulate what motivates each of your employees and where they see themselves in five years?
- Succession plans. What does your short list look like? Does it reflect you, and is there opportunity to add an unexpected candidate to your succession plan?
Equitable and inclusive leadership is a requirement
Frederick Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Many leaders fancy themselves great leaders. They think critically about their leadership and how they make decisions, delegate responsibilities, and achieve results. They think about what their leadership means for their people, peers, customers, and the business.
Fewer leaders think so intentionally about what it means to be an inclusive leader. But if your leadership is not inclusive, it can't possibly be great, because someone is being left behind. And that mindset is perhaps the place where TD can have the biggest impact: transforming how companies see equitable and inclusive leadership from a nice-to-have to a must-have, a critical and required leadership competency moving forward.
When Are Individuals Most Susceptible to Biased Thinking?
When people are overwhelmed, have high emotion about a situation, or need to act quickly, their brains are more likely to move into biased thinking. Consider these three circumstances as you approach decisions, conversations, and reactions that affect your team:
- Information overload
- Facts over feelings
- Need for speed
Build competence in the area of mindfulness, and create space between those circumstances and important decisions or interactions. It's easier said than done, but space in the form of downtime between meetings and prep time before difficult conversations can make all the difference in terms of knocking out the negative impacts of bias.