The biggest need of any individual is to feel belonged. The necessity to ‘fit in’ comes out of this belongingness game that we continuously play. We keep going in and out of our ‘comfort zone’ to be in balance and in sync with others. Young kids start picking up similar habits to be on the same page with friends that they like very early on. We as adults, pick up mannerisms and language, and work hard to lose one’s identity in various situations, in order to be accepted by the majority. The pressure to be one like the others is high and usually ignored. We conform where necessary and are compliant when required.
Assimilating ourselves to others needs or ‘Assimilation Bias’ is the need to camouflage oneself so that we no longer are distinct. It plays out in our life long before we even realise that we are playing it out. I have often come across introverted individuals trying to push the mould by working on their presence by showcasing extroverted energy and mannerisms. Often, the change has helped them get the next role but most of the time it has stretched them to be what they aren’t. Recently I met a senior women leader in a sales organization and she confessed that she doesn’t hire women in her team, even though she wants to, because she is fearful that she will be branded as pro-woman and not serious with her team. We tend to put everyone on the same plane and demand similar results, forgetting that each one of us is unique.
But we all still want to Assimilate. Why?
To fulfil a larger need often not mentioned openly, but culturally weaved in our life. Instinct tells us how to behave and ‘fit in’ based on some subtle messages and cues in order to be successful. We may debate as to what’s wrong in fitting with the dominant culture? But isn’t that the dichotomy of diversity and inclusion. We hire for difference but manage for similarities. Batch after batch people are bought in, and very nicely given ‘culture fit’ trainings to make everyone similar. Unfortunately missing the larger picture, losing our creativity, space for innovative thoughts, products and practices.
Assimilating ourselves is also a huge drain on our energies. We end up being what we are not, and that can be hugely tiring. We don’t get our best selves to work and get disengaged at the workplace. Ironically members of the dominant culture most of the time are ‘blind’ and do not realise when others are adjusting for them. They are only likely to notice when someone else doesn’t conform to their norm, or they find themselves in the minority.
In my experience in delivering more than hundreds of ‘Unconscious Bias’ facilitated conversations, it’s almost everywhere that the participants have very hesitatingly admitted to the fact of ‘fitting in’ as a way to be successful in their roles and environment.
But if we as individuals start:
- Appreciating others for what they are
- Being more patient in understanding other’s perspectives and thoughts
- To pause before jumping into stereotypical conclusions
Then we will be able to move our mental models about groups and individuals, that we might have assimilated as part of our upbringing. We will then be able to stretch the larger organizational box to get everyone to ‘fit in’.
– It’s not your fault that you have bias.
– It’s not your fault that our culture acclimates us to preferences in one direction over other
– It’s not your fault that everything that we read, everything that we see, media consumption is not in our control and not necessarily correct
– It’s not your fault that influences from family, friends, institutions, are biased by nature as people get information from them with a premise that it’s for our good.
– But, it can be your fault if having a preference may stop you from exploring equally great possibilities, and even people, that you aren’t even aware about.
All the above preferences, influences, information gets stored in our brains since childhood. Over time they start making mental shortcuts based on person and situation that we call ‘Unconscious Bias’. Now bias itself is just the preference of one thing over another and is just a function of the human condition. If we were not able to make those shortcuts, we wouldn’t quickly make decisions and consequently wouldn’t navigate life easily. E.g we will not put her hand over a flame cause we know we will get burnt, we will necessarily duck our head if we see a flying object coming towards. Bias is an essential survival mechanism.
Most bias is harmless, if it’s for a particular colour, food, place or car. But it can become tricky if we have bias about people. Our brains don’t break the habit of categorizing people and things using mental shortcuts. Some of this information leads to stereotypes which if left unchecked, can cause us to inadvertently push people away.
Positive bias can be just as harmful as a negative bias. It pushes us towards one thing/people and away from the other. That can lead people feeling included or excluded depending on which side of the bias one falls on – eg. more focus on gender programs alienates the men in the organization.
So how can we confront our own biases and allow our self the freedom to encounter new experiences?
The process of overcoming bias starts with ‘Us’. This can be honed with self-awareness, attention and effort. We need to start noticing our own bias by
- Paying attention on how we treat people
- Asking questions to our self if we ‘feel’ included or excluded
- Observing what triggers an emotion in us
We need to start creating authentic relationships which have a certain humility that starts with ‘I want to look at this in a new light’. It requires a willingness to suspend current beliefs and learnings. It also stems from an appreciation of our own incapacity to understand all things that we think we know.
If we can achieve the above then we can truly say we lead an unbiased life .
Privilege as a word is most used and quoted everywhere but very few really understand the weight of the same. Privilege is earned, unearned, inherited, blessed, or otherwise. It is an advantage available to one person or group, that isn’t available to the other person or groups.
Privilege is relative and anyone can have it, and most often everyone has some of it. Fighting for an Independent India our freedom fighters fought for the privilege of freedom. People living in cities have the privilege of modern amenities. People in rural India have the the privilege of fresh air and greenery. In the recent Mumbai rains the privilege of Mumbai came out strongly in terms of attention that it garnered for one day of rain, as opposed to Assam where rains have been playing havoc for a fortnight with hundreds of villages underwater, and people without basic sustenance. It is this privilege which subtly tells you that you are less worthy than others, but unfortunately can be felt only by the underprivileged. Unfortunately, our societies have established systems that recognize some human beings as more valuable than others.
Now being privileged doesn’t make you a bad person, but it makes it harder for you to understand the daily complexities and challenges of navigating life with less privilege. For eg. If you have constantly been mistreated by the police because you belong to a religious group (identity based privilege), it can be challenging to understand the constant fear that each of them go through when they see the police.
Privilege does not make any one better than anyone else. But if we intentionally set aside some of our privilege, it can yield a wealth of unexpected insights. To understand the same at a practical level, we need to take our self out of the comfort zone and the associated privilege. For e.g. we all take being literate, having reasonably normal health and access to clean drinking water as a hygiene factor. By putting ourselves in the shoes of a person who can’t read, person who is suffering from chronic illness and a woman who has to walk 12 kms to get drinking water can make us understand education, health and water in different perspectives.
When we take privilege for granted we create a dominant group identity, which often is the source of hidden privilege. However, that privilege may not occur as hurtful behaviour, it may simply occur as a presumption of normalcy. It can be invisible and when we experience its benefits, we often believe we have earned them. We can easily believe that anybody can have access to the same privileges if ‘they work hard and are smart enough,’ or employ some similar mental algorithm. That lack of awareness can easily blind us from seeing the presence of power and privilege, even when it so obvious to others around us.
I often have men complaining to me in my ‘bias sessions’ that there is too much focus on gender diversity. There is often a smirk in the audience of predominantly men who can-not understand the reason for the extra attention. Flip this question to the women and they will have a different perspective to share only experienced by them and not necessarily in the knowledge of men. E.g. the freedom to move around alone as a woman in the night, the unconscious stereotyping that they come across due to maternity, travel and flexi timings is the privilege that they don’t get being a woman.
Collectively we can move the needle if we temporarily leave aside your own interpretations in order to understand other interpretations. Identify our own privilege and use it for good wherever we see bias. Also, expand our empathy and understanding of people, whose lives are different from our own.
As I read the news of Travis Kalanick, CEO Uber of stepping down, I wondered if the story for Uber would have unfolded differently if they would have more transparent and inclusive culture at their workplace. The story of Uber, one of the world’s most valuable venture backed company is no doubt in crisis. In its success too, one cant ignore the failure of its leadership. Startups & Tech Industry have struggled for years with diversity and inclusion. The fact that Uber could become such an influential global powerhouse while seemingly neglecting its own workplace is in itself a paradox. The pressure for startups to grow fast — and the prospect of profits or an enriching “exit” for investors — can be blinding.
The way we work in the future will look vastly different to today’s landscape. Gone are the days when we would do daily commute to an office where people arrive with their coffees ready for the designated 40-hour week. Globally, experts predict that the workplaces of tomorrow will be more flexible, collaborative and mobile. To cope with this dynamic changing workplace scenario, the leaders also need to be equipped to manage this diversity effectively. Our Future of Work Research which interviewed more than 20 CHROs across various industries found that new technologies, data analytics, job sharing, social networks, flexibility are having a huge impact on how people communicate, collaborate and work. Traditional career models will be thing of past and so will be the traditional model of leadership.
The way talent seek careers and projects has already impacted how the workplace is designed. In the pursuit of attracting and retaining the best talent, most of the organisations including startups have been wooing talent with freebies and esops. But time and again, it has been proven that this is not enough. Organisations need to create workplaces where people want to be, somewhere that stimulates their thinking and importantly allows them to work in the way they need to. It should encourage collaboration and transparent culture. It is seen that diverse talent seek and value more diverse & inclusive workplaces. But how do we measure that?
Though it is becoming commonplace for big tech companies globally to divulge the demographics of their employees, it wasn’t that long ago that some of the best known names were not too keen to do so. They knew they would not look too god while doing it so. The same story is still applicable in India. While sharing of data and numbers did not look feasible for many organisations, we thought it would be encouraging to share some of the best practices from leading inclusive organisations. In this decade, where the industry is witnessing a “war of talent” this would help other organisations to follow suit and attract the best talent for them. Hence in 2018 we would be coming with Research – sharing of best of Inclusion in India Inc. This hopefully would pave a path for a more quantitative measure of Diversity & Inclusion for India Inc in future.
Business transformation is dynamic and we need to embrace change to thrive in such an ambiguous environment. This is only possible by embracing people’s differences, leveraging them and creating positive linkages between people, organisations and community. It’s a journey that impacts all of us, so we all need to be on board. Change is the ‘new norm’ and we need to champion it as such.
“Mom, we won the match!” shouted my 10 year old son as he got home from school. “Akshi was too cool. She took the last goal in the last 4 minutes to spare”.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear him raving about his team mate who is a girl playing in his school soccer team. This gave me hope and made me think how times have changed. While I was growing up, girls were expected to play with dolls and playing with the “boys” in a football field was unthinkable. Gender norms have blurred over the years and have created space for both girls and boys to explore their creative self without any cultural inhibitions. Games and activities offer a fun way for young children to learn about differences and similarities among people and to introduce the concept of diversity – which is all about accepting and respecting the differences.
As social realities change, perceptions of just what non-discrimination looks like have also evolved. The mainstream media have started portraying modern women as strong women making pro career choices even during pregnancy. This is a welcome change from women seen as stereotypical housewives or damsels in distress. Men are shown as equal partners in household work and championing women in their choices. But with these choices, come the responsibility to be a positive influence for your own self, family, colleagues and community. The Women on Influence workshop will help participants to discover their untapped potential and learn new ways to reframe resolve their problems.
While changes are visible, there is still long way to go for a truly inclusive society. We celebrate the spirit of diversity in India with various cultures, festivals and religions, but it would have been more meaningful if we could celebrate different ideologies and differences. Today, many countries, including Brazil, Finland and Spain, recognize same-sex partnerships, while others offer legal protections for children born out of wedlock and for single-parent families. This is still unthinkable in India. Article 377 is still a sore point of debate and also a tool for discrimination.
Diversity as an idea also has to evolve with the times. I am hoping that by the time our kids grow up – they will not question race, religion, nationality or gender. Its no longer just about gender equality – but it’s about Human equality. Its about respecting one human being to another. Its about inclusion which is truly meant for all.
For the same reason, we started on a mission to include diverse voices from all walks of life. The initiative Diverse Dialogues and BD Think Tank Forum builds linkages between corporates, communities and people to discuss, debate and find solutions to create a more inclusive world.
We hope these initiatives will help us to understand different point of views and help us to accept and respect differences. We look forward to your continued support and participation in these discussions.
Love & Trust
This article was first published on Shethepeople.tv. Please read the article here
Intel Ceo Brian Krzanich said in a conference of Grace Hopper Celebration of women in computing, “We all have unconscious gender bias”.
The important words here are ‘We all…” And this includes leaders of the organizations as well.
An EY paper on Unconscious Bias, ‘Outsmarting Our Brains, overcoming hidden biases to harness diversity’s true potential’ quotes DR Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University professor of Social Ethics and co-author of Blind Spot : Hidden Biases of Good people, “Leaders with best intentions may be unconsciously stifling diversity in their organizations.”
Human beings by default will have biases. Some biases are explicit and hence it’s easy to overcome and win over them. The tough part is to be able to recognize the implicit biases or the hidden biases which in layperson’s language is known as Unconscious Bias.
Leaders too like any other human being would carry biases. The important fact is that how aware are they of their own biases and hence what actions would they take to overcome these biases.
What can Leaders do to identify their biases?
- Listen to their own voice and be mindful of their communication ( verbal and nonverbal)
- Impromptu feedback from friends, colleagues and their circle of influence
- Ask their coach/ mentor if they have one and discuss it in length
- Take Unconscious Bias/ Blind Spot Identification Test administered by Biz Divas
- Ask more meaningful questions to themselves when forming an opinion about something or someone
What should leaders do once they have identified their biases?
- Create a Behaviour mind map to address their biases
- Act differently and address the biases they carry
- Acknowledge and share their story of self-awareness
When world leader like Gandhi can admit to his follies and we can still celebrate him, I am sure we could extend same admiration and support to our current leaders