Part Three: Surfacing Unconscious Bias for Self and for Organizational Awareness

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tzu

In Part One and Part Two of this blog series, we met Nancy and her boss Carol. Nancy was heading into what she thought was a great opportunity with a strong organization. But when Nancy encountered a distant and uncommunicative boss who limited her access to necessary resources, Nancy’s ability to perform well in her role was crippled.

Nancy repeatedly tried to change the dynamic of her relationship with her boss Carol. As a strong and historically competent leader, Nancy was understandably dismayed and was struggling in her position, which then impacted her efficacy and the assessment of her performance.

The unconscious bias of Nancy’s boss, Carol, as well as Nancy’s acquired bias of her boss, factored into Nancy’s being let go within a year of gaining the position. After she was laid off, Nancy was fortunate to quickly find another position with a desirable company and she was determined to take what she learned from the situation with Carol into her next role. To accomplish this, she chose a mode of self-reflection.

Nancy sought out support from several resources. One resource was an executive coach who supported her in asking herself some tough questions that deepened her awareness of her blind spots and biases, and the part that these may have inadvertently played in her role with Carol.

Nancy knew that she wanted to create a strong go forward response plan that might prevent this from occurring in her new position. She was inspired to make a new script for herself. Faced with the question of how she might explore, admit to, and potentially be more aware of her biases about others and about herself, Nancy did the hard work of examining the role she may have played in her previous situation. How might she prevent this from happening in the future?

While she was asking these questions, Nancy discovered the book: Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace by Christine Porath (2016). In it, there was a presentation about Google and the Unconscious Bias @ Work program. This program has opened a portal into understanding unconscious bias for self and others within an organization. It was just the resource that Nancy needed.

Unconscious Bias @ Work has been a focus at Google since 2014. It has gained traction and has impacted the culture at Google. The initiative began with the question: How do people make decisions at work? It was prompted by a New York Times study where it was shown that hiring decisions were impacted by gender. (More information)

As of 2016, 30,000 of Google’s 55,000 employees have gone through a 60 to 90 minute training program. It has been found that program participants were significantly more aware of unconscious bias, had greater understanding of it and were more motivated to overcome it. (Porath, p. 91, 2016). As well, just one month after attending the workshop, participants were more likely to perceive Google’s culture as fair, objective and attuned to diversity than those in the control group (Porath, p. 92, 2016).

To create actions and awareness of unconscious bias and to make it accessible to employees, Google has a series of the following checklists for assisting in making important decisions about employees:

  1. Unbiasing Checklist for Promotion Decisions
  2. Unbiasing Checklist for Performance Review Conversations (found below as an example)

Unbiasing Checklists for Performance Review Conversations

Action: Communicate the performance expectations for your employees in that role and level.

Bias Targeted: Stereotype-Based Biases

Action: Make sure cited feedback and examples come from the entire assessment period.

Bias Targeted: Recency Bias

Action: Discuss important work that may not have been visible.

Bias Targeted: Availability Bias

Action: Differentiate between situation factors (in the workplace) and personal factors that affected performance.

Bias Targeted: Fundamental Attribution Error

Action: Use multiple concrete, behavioral examples from reviewers to support both strengths and development areas.

Bias Targeted: Leniency Error, Self-Serving Bias

Action: Imagine your direct report in a different social group and ask yourself whether your feedback would be the same.

Biases Targeted: Stereotype-Based Biases

Managers have access to the above, ‘bias busting’ checklists of assumptions so that they are more aware of bias when making business decisions, doing performance assessments and hiring. They are also encouraged to use the checklist to test themselves and to call out others, including executives and other employees, when they see unconscious bias surfacing. (Porath, p.92, 2016). 

Nancy found this information on unconscious bias a way to understand how she had labelled herself and Carol in her situation. Her labelling of herself played into her decreased performance as she began to exhibit a different way of being based on her surroundings. Nancy realized that this was extremely self-limiting. Now she had a greater awareness, a way of understanding her own biases, and she had the language to discuss it with others. 

How can Nancy go into a new role and bring a new sense of self and of others?

To step forward, Nancy was inspired by Lao Tzu’s quote: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Her building awareness of her own unconscious biases and a way to understand others was the first step for her strong go forward response plan. This includes being honest enough to uncover her own unconscious bias as a leader, and to reflect upon how these are factoring into her day-to-day work relationships.

In turn, Nancy has been intentionally discovering the key aspects of the culture and reward system in her new organization so that her efforts are integrated and will have the best chance of being well received.

As she has come to understand this new context, Nancy is more mindful of her own role in creating an avoid pattern with her previous boss Carol. She wants to be more aware of her own blind spots and her role in fostering strong and mutually respectful work relationships. To accomplish this, Nancy will build a group of colleagues, both inside and outside her current organization, who will assist her in reflecting upon her actions and their impact on her direct reports.

Nancy will find ways to connect with her team to create an open and honest rapport that will allow her to gauge her impact. She will get to know her current supervisor and find ways to connect based on her style and time demands. This may require finding places, and times, when her new supervisor is most available to be open and to build their rapport.

Nancy is also associating how her own unconscious biases might be impacting conflicts with others in her organization. She is finding ways to strengthen her own listening and communication and will role model these for her team first. Then she will ask them to step into this listening and open communication style so that stronger collaboration may be possible as they look at their own unconscious biases.

Being open to new and different ideas is key for Nancy’s go forward response plan. Being aware of her own biases will make her go forward response plan more open and attuned to its impact on her relationship with her new supervisor and her new team. 

References:

Porath, C. (2016). Mastering civility: A workplace manifesto. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Google. Guide: Watch unconscious bias at work. 

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