Bias at the Office and diversity of thought

As companies seek to become more innovative, diversity of thought is becoming more important. Diversity of thought is not what you think but how you think. It is critical for problem-solving. It is important to encourage it in order to minimise group think. A great leadership quality is that of being open-minded and encouraging differences. We live in what is being called ‘the age of anxiety’. People have the need to be included and to be listened to. Let’s make work environments welcoming and inviting.

In the past few months we have seen some public prejudices, in particular based on race, on social media. These prejudices, consciously or subconsciously, occur in the workplace as well.

To ignore or deny the gross and subtle effects of biases and the role they play in generating and prolonging inequality is to ignore the very dynamics that underlie our society.

Therefore as leaders we need to play our part. The art of a leader is to make others feel that they belong. In some organisations diversity is taken seriously at the highest office, the CEO’s office, and in others it is passed on to the most junior manager as a compliance exercise.

As a young leader are you aware of your own unconscious bias? Do you acknowledge that biases exist in the workplace? We all have biases based on our upbringing, our environment, and our experiences growing up. It is what we do with the biases that becomes problematic. Naturally we are attracted to that which is similar to us or that which is familiar. That which is not similar to us or is unfamiliar we tend to shy away from, or are sceptical towards, or tend to judge more harshly or undermine. Does this sound familiar?

The ‘Big 9’ social identifiers or characteristics by which society seeks to define people are: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical/ psychological ability, ethnicity, language, age and religion.

We may not completely have a bias-free work environment, but as leaders we need to be aware of our biases and ensure we minimise the negative unintended intentions.

Ask yourself whether you believe that diversity brings better results and adds to the business’s bottom line? If companies believed in diversity so much, why isn’t at least 25% of the leadership’s salary dependent on diversity targets?

The next time you are involved in a recruitment process reflect on what type of people you are recruiting. Are they usually similar to you? Do they mainly have the same characteristics as each other?

The next time salary increases and performance ratings are being reviewed ask yourself whether similar people are getting higher ratings? If this is consistently the case do you know why this is the case? As a leader you need to consciously ask yourself whether you are being bias to the disadvantage of others and of your company.

As leaders we need to be aware of our own unconscious biases, and try our best to minimise the negative effects of it by purposefully making conscious decisions which support diversity.

Each one of us has the responsibility to not only build profitable organisations but to build organisations where employees feel they belong.

Author: Gugu Mtetwa CA(SA) is a Non-executive Director