Authentic Leaders Create Inclusive Teams

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Dr. Shelton Goode, DPA

I remember when I was being recruited for a job. I refused to talk to a persistent executive recruiter until the recruiter told me she was an alum of the University of Alabama. I immediately said, “Roll Tide!” And the next thing I know, I said: “of course I’ll talk to you about the position”. All of my reasons for not wanting to talk to her immediately went out the window because we both had attended the same college where people are passionate about their football team.

In my upcoming book, Crisis as A Platform for Social Change from Strawberry Mansion to Silicon Valley, I share that recollection and other perspectives on how unconscious or hidden biases bias can affect efforts to promote a culture of diversity in companies, communities, and the country.

Research shows that we use different parts of our brain to deal with those who are more like us and those who are different. We internalize stereotypes. We judge trustworthiness within microseconds of meeting people based on little more than facial features. The outcome?

These unconscious biases shape our judgments about character, abilities, and potential of other people.

I am a diversity professional with over a decade of experience who is deeply committed to advancing organizational culture based on equity and diversity. Based on my experience, I know that even people who are deeply committed to diversity; and consciously striving to do the right thing, are sometimes subtly influenced by their backgrounds, their experiences and the way their brain works.

It takes hard work to counteract these biases. Here are five tips, that I believe can help uncover and address unconscious bias:

Acknowledge potential for bias. Learning about and accepting our brains’ tendency toward bias is the first step in recognizing and dealing with it. The fact that our brains create bias is nothing to feel guilty about. But to truly embrace diversity, it is important to regularly check to see if these biases are influencing our decisions.

Be wary of first impressions. Within microseconds of meeting someone, our brain decides about how likable the person is based on factors such as dress, facial expression, even the shape of his or her face. These decisions are often based on past experiences and may have no rational relevance to the person in front of you. If you find yourself immediately drawn to someone or immediately put off by someone, be cautious. Often your decision is based on how similar or dissimilar they are to you.

Learn about stereotypes. Heightened awareness of common stereotypes such as ‘women are good communicators’ or ‘someone named Mohammed must be Muslim’; can cue you in to whether stereotypes are influencing decisions. As the diversity leader in the organization, I have often challenged recruiters and hiring managers to reconsider their initial expectation that the best candidates would come from only a handful of schools. Look closely at your expectations to see if they are colored by stereotypes. 

Broaden your focus. The human brain has an amazing capacity to screen out distractions. Imagine trying to drive if you paid attention to every billboard and sign. However, fixating on one idea or looking for a pattern in a set of data may blind you to other equally important data. We tend to see what we expect to see.  When the data disagree, we often assume the data is wrong or ignore it.

Expose yourself to diverse experiences. Exposing ourselves to different experiences changes the unfamiliar into the familiar. One the ways that I have done this is to have diverse images on my screensaver which challenge my cultural assumptions.

Remember we all have biases. But it is very humbling to realize you have biases you wish you didn’t have. It is important to recognize that valuing differences is not a matter of comfort – it’s about competence and confidence.