A colleague recently went car shopping with his daughter, and each had a list. His daughter knew the make and model she wanted, along with the engine and interior features. My colleague’s list had a different focus: airbags, blind spot warning system with automatic emergency steering, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking and technology to stop the car from drifting in a lane. Did I mention he calls himself #overprotectivedad? Personally, I think he’s just being a dad.
But he never worries about being teased, and it’s hard to argue with his logic. This safety technology he insisted on was designed to give a driver extra eyes, increased awareness of what's going on around the vehicle and the tools to help prevent or quickly correct a potentially fatal mistake. Any longtime driver knows that your mirrors only reflect to you what is in their line of vision. These other systems augment the mirrors and help to show what you might otherwise miss. Why not use them?
I thought of my coworker and his daughter because, more and more, we rely on the concept of increasing awareness within organizations to highlight things we need to see but might miss, especially when addressing diversity and inclusion. The more we develop our programs, the more knowledge we are mining from the experience and building a greater sense of vision and awareness.
It goes beyond the concept of “walking in someone else’s shoes” because you can change shoes, but you can’t change where you come from, your culture or the lessons you learned as a child or young adult. You can, however, continue to learn from new experiences and different behaviors or customs, which in turn allows you to adjust the way you work and otherwise interact with people.
Earlier in my career, I was fortunate to spend nearly a decade in Asia and, coming from Canada and then New York, I saw firsthand how cultural mores could impact the way we interact with each other. It wasn’t a matter of one culture being right and another wrong, they are just different. To build our teams and conduct business successfully, my colleagues and I had to figure out how to get the best from each other, which meant being sensitive to differences and learning from each other.
Then and now, it’s important to encourage colleagues to constantly step away from long-held beliefs and rethink their approach to everything from one-on-one conversations to how to run a meeting. Remember, in a loud room filled with employees trying to solve a problem, the very quiet person who refuses to call out or dive headlong into the fray may have the best solution. That employee, however, may not speak up unless encouraged because some people will not interrupt a leader or want to bring attention to themselves. In some cases, that may simply be due to someone’s personality or upbringing. But it also could be that the person’s culture may frown upon what could be perceived as aggressive or discourteous behavior, or he or she may feel disconnected from the larger group because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.
In the same way, we know there’s no guarantee that every extrovert will be the best sales person or relationship manager but our unconscious bias might lead us to believe this is true.
In fact, it’s hard to separate yourself from what’s been ingrained in you from an early age based on the unique circumstances of your upbringing. It’s human nature to rely on an approach that you believe to be sound, something that has worked well in the past and feels comfortable and familiar. It’s a normal reaction, but it can be misguided or inappropriate because that same muscle memory also can limit the ability to find the best solution and even be detrimental to an organization trying to compete in a global marketplace.
The most effective leaders understand the cultural and social norms of the people on their teams and operate from that knowledge base. If encouraging participation in a group setting doesn’t work, seek out people afterward and let them know that their views are welcomed and encouraged—in fact, you need their help for the team’s creativity.
Leaders also need to slow down and avoid making reflexive decisions based on their muscle memory. Instead, pause and think about other possible options. Ask for input to make sure you’re paying attention to the nuances, whether it’s running a meeting, managing a project or even writing a job description. If diversity and inclusion are priorities, take your time to consider issues holistically and make good decisions based on facts—not your perception of the situation. Colleagues can help clear a path as well, especially in group settings, by quieting a room to give others a chance or by turning over a speaking opportunity to someone who may be overlooked.
At my company, we’ve launched aggressive D&I initiatives to create a workplace where every employee can actively contribute to our success while feeling valued and respected. We're calling 2020 the Year of Allies and Sponsors, meaning employees equally commit, actively participate, seek to open doors of opportunity, and hold themselves and others accountable to achieve parity and fairness.
I’m proud of the progress we’re making in all our D&I programs, but like so many other companies across industries, we still have a long way to go and need tools to drive home our message.
That’s why we’ve been proud supporters of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion since its founding. This year, we’re participating in a special initiative, Check Your Blind Spots, a mobile, multimedia experience that will stop at our offices in Dallas on February 26. The program offers a wide array of interactive activities and information sessions that will teach our colleagues how to recognize the nuances of “blind spots” or unconscious bias, and provide them with techniques for overcoming bias and cultivating inclusive behavior.
Unconscious bias is a fact of life. It doesn’t make you a bad person, but rather human. The key is recognizing this frailty because rejecting or ignoring the idea that we all may have some biases ultimately stifles personal growth and professional development.
Just like my colleague and his daughter buying a new car, if we have tools to uncover and increase our awareness about unconscious bias, let’s use them. Chances are, they’ll show us something that we haven’t seen before to make us better people and stronger organizations.