When we are stressed, unconscious bias gets worse. We more frequently act on autopilot and go with our gut. This makes sense, right? When we are under pressure, we make decisions quickly, without deliberating at length and without soliciting input and feedback from everyone we could. We rely on instinct for everything from setting priorities to assessing the merit of new ideas to evaluating our team members’ contributions.
Why is this a problem?
Two reasons: first, it’s likely to impact employees from underrepresented groups the most. We know this from the vast body of research that looks at how non-white, female, LGBTQ+, and other historically disadvantaged demographics fare in the workplace.
They are the ones most likely to not be fully consulted about changes in the company’s direction. They are the ones less likely to speak up in Zoom meetings. They are the ones more likely to be facing extra challenges while quarantined at home, from lack of working space to weaker wi-fi connections to heavier caregiving responsibilities. And on the purely individual level, this is not fair.
The second reason unchecked unconscious bias is a problem is that it impacts your ability to innovate and expand into new markets. Research conducted in the aftermath of the 2008 recession indicated that diverse and inclusive companies were 45% more likely to report a growth in market share and 70% more likely to have captured a new market. Let’s be honest: you really need that kind of action right now!
The good news is that the behaviors that unlock innovation are within reach for most managers and team leaders, including simply making sure everyone is heard and feels safe to propose novel ideas. However, this requires leaders to consciously take steps to make sure everyone is empowered to participate and gets a fair chance to be heard. Here are a few steps you can take, according to inclusion strategist, keynote speaker and HBR contributor Ruchika Tulshyan:
- Ask for input before the meeting. Letting people know what they should be thinking about or what problems the group needs to solve is a first step to making sure it’s not the same 3 people with all the ideas in your virtual brainstorming session. There are lots of reasons why people hesitate to speak - being a non-native speaker of the language, having a harder time hearing, a spottier internet connection or a distracting environment—or just having less confidence they’ll be taken seriously - and a bit of extra time can really help overcome the disadvantage.
- Ensure that people have what they need. Ask about their technology resources and wi-fi connections, the best ways to connect and the best times for meetings given any additional personal responsibilities they may be dealing with. Ask specific questions; don’t leave them with an open-ended “let me know if you need anything.” Employees from underrepresented groups may hesitate to ask for extra help or accommodation, as these requests could seem to accentuate their differences. Offer whatever flexibility you can; this could mean extending deadlines or being flexible about the times of day your team members work.
- Check in with everyone. In a large meeting, acknowledge everyone who is present, even if they don’t get the opportunity to speak at length. Schedule smaller meetings regularly and make time for everyone to express how they’re doing - perhaps sharing either a success or a challenge they are facing. Finally, be aware that specific groups - such as Asian, older, or immunocompromised employees - may be disproportionately impacted by the current crisis. It is appropriate to show both public and private support for Asian employees at a time when anti-Chinese and Asian racism is on the rise. It is also helpful to proactively share health and wellness resources with those who may need them.
- Challenge your biases. No matter your personal identity, background or intentions, bias is a normal and universal part of human cognition. If you find yourself judging or reacting negatively to someone from a historically disadvantaged group, question yourself. Consider what assumptions you might be making. Ask yourself how you would respond if the same behaviour came from someone in the majority demographic. See if you can supply objective reasons for your reaction. Before acting, pause to consider whether your judgement could be biased.
As leaders in a time of crisis, we have a unique opportunity to develop strong, resilient, high-functioning teams that will endure through the pandemic and beyond. Let’s make sure those teams are truly inclusive.