In a significant lapse of judgment, one of our senior business leaders made a loose comment about people who came from a certain region and that you could never trust them. A couple people around nodded in agreement and echoed similar thoughts. I remember, my eyes widened with surprise and alarm. I was torn between interrupting this appalling conversation and frantically looking around to check if the rest of the team had heard any of this. I am rarely speechless, but I was lost for words in that moment. I remember walking away abruptly and distancing myself from the incident and the people involved as quickly as I could.
I felt pained that we were talking of people as if they had no feelings and didn't matter. This was genuine ignorance on our part if we thought it was okay by any stretch to have disrespected and rejected an entire group of people just because we felt like doing so.
Trust and goodness don't live in regions, religions and groups, they live in people. We could as easily feel betrayed by someone close to us as floored by the generosity of a person we didn't think we could trust.
I later spoke with one of the people involved registering my protest and that it disappointed me that they would nod along to a divisive conversation. While I was unhappy with what happened, I didn't have a grand plan to stop it from happening again. Venting my frustration is where it ended. There is a sense of powerlessness in the face of outright prejudice and bigotry, and action doesn't come by easily even if you have witnessed or experienced it first hand. Also, anger doesn't move anyone to positive change. Interrupting bias then takes a more considered and long-term approach that doesn't target just one or two people, but everyone's mindset in general.
What if one of team members overhearing this conversation had a loved one who belonged in that region? Would they continue to feel as committed to the team or collaborate with the leader who had made the insensitive remark?
A new study by VitalSmarts found that more than a quarter (27 percent) of those who experience discrimination at work report the bias to be common, impactful and beyond their ability to manage. The result of this triple threat of factors leads to frustration, stress, depression and helplessness on the job. By analysing the stories of 500 victims of discrimination, researchers found that bias in the workplace is pervasive, permanent and unmanageable for victims.
Here are 3 smart ways for leaders like yourself to interrupt bias at work, enable others to feel empowered and that you care about their wellbeing and contribution at work.
#1 Reconfigure how you conduct meetings
While women are at the receiving end of various kinds of bias, one of the rampant ones is to do with their intellect or the assumed lack of it. Women are interrupted more often - by everybody. Various studies support the “woman, interrupted” phenomenon: one of them was conducted in 2014 study by researchers at George Washington University which showed that men are 33% more likely to interrupt women than they are to interrupt other men. Even women interrupt women more often, the study found.
What you could do: Set expectations right at the start or in the agenda email or invite you send out to attendees. Call it a 'no interruptions' meeting if interruptions have been tough to handle and people feel unheard and offended with each other. A much better option than chastising people during and after every meeting. Another way is to curtail the meeting duration to an odd time such as a 17 mins meeting. Everyone gets 1 min to share their initial ideas and suggestions and keeps it short. Everyone must therefore have to listen to others until their turn comes again to ask for questions or clarifications. Another round could be for observations and questions, again time bound. End it in 17 mins and see how it catches on as a fun and unobtrusive interruption of a bias that tempts us to interrupt others.
#2 Distribute the responsibility to watch for discrimination and bias
Often it is either the team leader or an internal group such as a diversity task force that watches for discriminatory behaviour. An unintended consequence is that everyone is on their own, they need to watch their words and their backs and report anything that offends them. When people feel they are on their own and are almost always in a defensive and protective mode, they aren't looking out for others. Diverse teams are likely to fall apart if they stand aloof from each other for fear of recrimination for being biased.
What you could do: Research has shown that social support can make a huge difference in people's lives during stressful times. Encourage and experiment with a buddy system in a highly diverse and dispersed teams. If I am part of a diverse team, I might have a buddy either in my own or another team and we could be responsible to check-in with each other fortnightly or monthly about how we were both doing. When we feel responsible to understand how someone else is doing, we make an effort to put ourselves in their shoes and find out what affects them negatively and impedes their ability to be productive and positive. The other person is then likely to feel very motivated to do the same for us. Empathy helps mitigate bias over a period of time. More and more people begin to understand how seemingly insignificant actions affect others' wellbeing and happiness at work. This is a long-term play in helping interrupt bias without making people feel like bigots for being biased. We are all biased.
#3 Encourage celebrating small wins
Frustration with the pace of work makes us lose our cool and make inconsiderate remarks more often than because we are inherently bad and vicious people. Workplaces can turn colourless and transactional, especially, the ones that work at a quicker pace in high stress industries. No one has time to celebrate small wins, everyone keeps waiting for the big win, and when it comes, most people are too exhausted and spent to celebrate.
What you could do: Cultivate the culture of small wins celebration. Don't spend a lot of money or this practice will come to an end soon enough. Let it be a mutually supportive celebration, for example, a pot luck on a Friday afternoon. Keeping it informal increases the chances of sustaining it. Food is a powerful connector for communities and people. It helps us ask questions that otherwise would never come up during the day. Most people love to share where the recipe came from, if and how much they love to cook, who taught them to cook and more importantly, information about their culture and practices that others don't know or understand. Celebrating festivals from various cultures is a great way to bust myths and prejudices about that culture. When we experience something first hand, we are more likely to have our own opinion about it, instead of work with a borrowed one from our past.
Do share if you have creative ways in your workplace to bust some myths and prejudices about each other. Would love to hear back.