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“This is not about guilt or innocence. The point is, it’s time to turn a page” Charlie Luken 

In my experience, when it comes to the touchy subject of unconscious bias, individuals and organisations tend to wallow in either Guilt, Resentment or Atonement as a way of coping with or addressing unconscious bias in the workplace. The guilty perpetrator versus hapless victim paradigm is unhelpful at best and, in the long run, can entrench exactly the attitudes and behaviours we are all trying to change. 

Let’s be clear exactly what we are talking about: unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people -usually minorities- that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. It leads to seemingly informed decisions and micro-agressions, that have negative repercussions for the ‘subject’ of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias also has a close cousin; ‘Reverse Bias’. This happens when the ‘subject’ senses or anticipates a stereotyped negative response. In that mental state, she or he can understandably, misinterpret unfavourable actions or decisions negatively when in fact there is another explanation. 

Let’s take a look at why it doesn’t make any sense to hold on to Guilt, Resentment or Atonement; why these approaches are not suitable platforms for promoting the kind of change we all want and need. 

Questionable, Guilt-Driven Solutions

Guilt essentially makes organisations and their management feel bad for mistakes that they as individuals or as a group have inadvertently and/ or unconsciously made by being part of the powerful (white, straight, heterosexual, able bodied, religious, public school in positions of seniority etc), majority. Or because they have unwittingly been conditioned into perpetrating various forms of negative bias on minorities. 

It is from this position of guilt that many good people look to make changes that will improve the workplace and individual lives. In this worldview, minorities are seen as victims and organisations and managers feel obliged to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, to learn from their mistakes, and to use their position to change things for the better. The inclusion and diversity goals are worthy ideals. But when people make well-intentioned changes from this platform, the effect is to disempower the subjects of unconscious bias. Subjects are not put in the driver’s seat when it comes to promoting such ideals and advancing their careers. Rather, they remain hapless, passive victims, dependent on the wisdom and goodwill of the majority.

Pointless, Resentment-Driven Solutions

Resentment is the defensive fragility that arises when we are implicated, even indirectly, in the injustices that we all wish to disassociate ourselves from, such as: racial bias, sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, sexualism and so on. Even discussion of such injustices causes discomfort, and sometimes deep resentment and defensiveness. These are understandable reactions. But, if unchecked they can move us towards an extreme and in some cases sinister response toward the ‘offending’ parties. When people seek to make change from this space, it tends to be grudgingly; not much more than a ‘tick box’ exercise, ‘just to show we’re doing something’.

Negligible Atonement Solutions

Atonement is when you, as a minority victim of unconscious bias, or as an enlightened member of the ‘perpetrating’ powerful majority, seek to right the wrongs against minorities in the workplace. Organisations engaged in ‘atonement’ – get active in calling out and owning up to injustices publicly, ostensibly as a way of promoting reform.

Atonement solutions often include supporting and funding initiatives for change that seek to shift paradigms and create an environment conducive to greater inclusivity for all. When people seek to make change from this space it tends to be loud, it creates awareness and makes us all feel better. But there is a real problem here: atonement strategies do not equip subjects with the skills they need to navigate the inevitable bias that will inevitably come their way, no matter how many inclusion initiatives a workplace puts in place. 

Atonement also generates guilt. And, as shown above, guilt as a starting point too often leads to a delayed but understandable backlash against that guilt. This is because of the sometimes, judgemental and sanctimonious sounding tones of accusations and requests for change. We then hear responses like the following:

 “Why should feel guilty – I haven’t done anything wrong” “Get over it,” “We’re taking political correctness to ridiculous extremes”; “what privilege do I have?”, etc.

All three positions are understandable. But action from any or all three of these spaces alone, as a platform for change is likely to have only short term results. This is because they inadvertently sustain the guilty perpetrator versus hapless victim paradigm. This is the exact opposite of empowering subjects of unconscious bias and creating equal opportunity. In fact, it arguably creates a ‘pet project’ scenario whereby the hapless ‘subject’ is not part of the solution. Rather, success is dependent on the actions of the ‘project leader.’

Why is this a problem?

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. This adage is just as relevant to what we are discussing here. You can give me your wisdom, your encouragement, your support. You can even change things to make the workplace journey easier for me. But any power you hand over in this way polarises us into two distinct groups (when we’re actually the same) and is on your terms. It can be taken away just as easily as it was given. Maybe at some point you’re going to get tired of giving me a helping hand. If I then accuse you of relinquishing your responsibility for the project- you’ll resist. I’ll feel hard done by and the vicious cycle of accusations of no inclusivity starts all over again!

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Long-term results require us to move beyond this model of change. We need to allocate attention and resources to initiatives and interventions that are conceived in terms of Equity or Fairness. You are not helping me because you feel bad or because you have to or because you want to change the world: you are working with me because this is the fair and just thing to do; not to talk of the business benefit. 

These inclusion initiatives should dispassionately address the part of our collective human nature from which daily acts of unconscious bias are derived. (The part of our human nature that latches onto unconscious biases that are then inadvertently interwoven into behaviours and policies). This has to be a collaborative endeavour with equal and joint accountability for success with both ‘subjects’ and ‘perpetrators’ of unconscious bias, especially in the moments that identifiable Unconscious Bias occurs, as this is where it arguably does the most damage. 

One way of doing this (I’ll share others in a future post) is by equipping people with the skills to deal with unconscious bias on a person to person basis ‘in the moment’ when it happens.

‘Conversations, good communications only make things better in a relation’ Big Daddy Kane

Here are simple steps that you can use to address day-to-day unconscious and ‘reverse’ bias effortlessly. The steps are similar but not exactly the same for those sitting on different sides of the fence:

What to do when you know (or suspect) that Unconscious Bias is being directed towards you:

  1. Give unconscious ‘perpetrators’ the benefit of the doubt… (chances are they’re not aware of any offence towards you) but call the bias out anyway using dispassionate developmental enquiry(DDE)
  2. Never call out the core issue (as this is likely to invoke defensive fragility) instead, call out the problem
  3. Don’t deviate from a DDE line of questioning, and wait for the bias or other problem to call itself out- it will
  4. Collaboratively agree solution oriented next steps and move on

Handling suspected or actual Reverse Bias if you’re a leader/manager:

  1. Give unconscious ‘perpetrators’ the benefit of the doubt… (chances are they’re more than justified in their paranoia based on numerous, negative past experiences) but call the ‘reverse  bias’ out anyway using dispassionate developmental enquiry(DDE)
  2. Never call out the core issue (as this is likely to invoke defensive fragility) instead, call out the problem
  3. Adopt your natural coaching and development role as a leader, using DDE and wait for the ‘reverse bias’ or other problem to call itself out- it will
  4. Collaboratively agree a time bound plan of action steps (and schedule a review if necessary)

These simple steps are a self-correcting practical, results oriented approach toward the ills of unconscious bias in the workplace. They have the effect of doing two things at once: reconditioning unconscious ‘perpetrators’ and empowering ‘subjects’ in the ‘moment’. This approach chips away at layers of negative conditioning in a very short space of time, without the accompanying issues of defensive fragility, so often associated with accusations of unconscious bias.

I’d encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with these steps. And should you suspect or sense Unconscious or ‘Reverse’ Bias in any of its forms in the future, use the steps in the order described, to call it out then and there and watch how effortlessly and peacefully, your actual or imagined problem is resolved.

Stay Safe, Stay Alert, Stay Happ