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Planting the Seeds of Change: Discussing Biases to Ensure a Diverse Workplace

Planting the Seeds of Change: Discussing Biases to Ensure a Diverse Workplace

Get more information about a management degree at American Public University.

By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management, American Public University

One never knows when and where they will have the opportunity to share different perspectives. I am going to share an experience that I had as a consumer with an individual in his place of employment.

I recently had a conversation with a store employee who had diverse experiences and beliefs. When the topic turned to politics and the state of American culture, I could tell he wanted to ask me a question. I chose a noncontroversial opening to encourage him to be bold enough to ask what was really on his mind.

Me: I understand there are people who are angry. Can you explain to me why they are so upset?

Employee: Things have gotten out of control, and we just want things to go back to the way they were.

Me: (At this point, I recognize that he identifies with the angry group to which I referred. It was no longer a general conversation.) What does that mean?

Employee: (visibly upset) We didn’t have problems with the immigrants who came over here years ago. Yes, they wanted to make a better life, and we didn’t have an issue with that. They came over here and had no problem fitting into our society.

Now, the new ones want us to do things to cater to them. Why do they need to speak their language in public? English is the official language. I can’t understand them!

Me: Are you saying that you are okay as long as people different from you assimilate into your world? Your preference is for them to negate who they are to make you feel comfortable?

Employee: Yes.

Me: Would you like to discuss why that might be a problem?

We had the discussion and then he walked away. Based on his non-verbal clues – standing with his arms crossed and a negative expression on his face – I could tell that I had made him aware that my opinion differed from his. But I am almost certain he will not change his mindset.

Why? It’s because he wants to hold onto his current belief system. He has made a conscious decision to accept his bias.

Why Is A Cognitive Approach Better When It Comes to Confronting Bias?

The discussion might have been better handled through a cognitive approach rather than a behavioral approach. The employee was aware of the core concepts of valuing diversity, but he had a problem with how diversity applies today.

Instead of trying to change his thinking during our brief encounter, I wanted to challenge him to think about what he was saying. I wanted simply to plant the seeds of change in him, hoping that someone else would come along and water the plant.

In the blog “Live. Work. Think. Play,” behavioral psychologist Kristin Backstrom explains how to understand and develop a strategy to disrupt unintended negative biases and stereotyping at work. For example, my attempt to disrupt this employee’s negative bias was to summarize his statement and pose a question about assimilation versus diversification.

Some of the key points in Backstrom’s article are:

  • Our brains have evolved to make things easier for us to process.
  • Although a lot of information comes our way on a daily basis, we only process 2% to 3% of it.
  • In most situations (about 95% of the time), we engage in quick-thinking methods to lighten our brain’s processing load.

An example of quick-thinking methods is the “dynamic of generalization.” For example, we learn to push open doors because we open doors that way on a daily basis.

However, we all have that one day when we have to pull the door open (make more of an effort) versus pushing the door (doing things the way they’ve always been done). Our brains also use this shortcut to process other activities and to make choices for us.

Shortcuts encourage the development of our values and beliefs. This is how biases and stereotypes are formed.

Although we could eliminate shortcuts, that drastic step would prevent us from tapping into our past experiences to make decisions. In effect, once a belief is embedded in the brain, we would have a difficult time changing it, like that employee’s bias against new immigrants.

To make a difference, to change personal biases and to create a workplace that celebrates diversity, we have to tap into that area of the brain that we use approximately only 5% of the time and use slow, deliberate thinking rather than “brain shortcuts.” As Backstrom writes, “One effective method is to kick-start more deliberate thinking, by providing people feedback about things they may say or do, that can open the door to modifying generalizations.” (I did this, for example, when I asked that employee,Would you like me to discuss why that might be a problem?”)

I might not see that employee again, but I provided him an opportunity to evaluate his beliefs. He might reaffirm them, but at least he processed the fact that they were being challenged.

Individual Biases Have an Impact in the Workplace and in Life

How is this story relevant to the workplace? An individual’s viewpoints and personal beliefs can subtly affect the workforce.

Like harassment, biases don’t have to be blatant to be offensive. Just as we focus on providing diversity and inclusion training sessions, let’s provide employees with a safe, authentic environment for an open forum or focus group session in which to discuss their perspectives and how they arrived at those conclusions.

Every so often, we need to stop and check what the online people’s skills tool kit MindTools calls theladder of inferenceto avoid jumping to conclusions.

Oprah Winfrey led such a focus group discussion on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes last Sunday evening. She brought together participants from various parts of Ohio to offer their views on President Trump’s performance. The participants revealed their genuine feelings without hostility and by agreeing to disagree.

Get more information about a management degree at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.