For Diversity and Inclusion, Teams Need to Talk About Unconscious Bias

As research from McKinsey has shown, companies that prize diversity and inclusion have an edge in today’s fast-paced world. When it comes to recruiting top talent, improving customer outcomes, and improving innovation, diverse companies seem to outperform their competitors — though simply trying for these qualities doesn’t automatically grant their benefits.

While having diversity in the workplace is a good goal, it does not always lead to better teams and outcomes because it does not guarantee a workplace culture of inclusion and psychological safety. In the absence of those qualities, teams may actually perform worse, costing companies both time and money.

To achieve that hard-to-obtain balance between diversity and inclusion, well-meaning companies must first address the elephant in the room: unconscious bias.

Promoting diversity and inclusion by overcoming unconscious bias

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) is defined as any set of social stereotypes that a person might apply to a social group prejudicially and unintentionally. This is a contrast to conscious or explicit bias, where prejudicial ideas are openly acknowledged or believed. In either case, these biases can include both positive and negative stereotypes — sometimes sliding into overt racism. Though it may go without saying, these patterns are a huge obstacle to initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion.

In all cases, biases like these can create dysfunctional and exclusive work cultures when left unexamined. While it may not be possible to completely eliminate unconscious bias, it can be managed and minimized so that teams can create a more inclusive environment beyond diversity that promotes mutual respect and innovation.

1. Balance diversity and inclusion by screening for unconscious biases early.

While HR departments and hiring managers are often responsible for recruiting and maintaining diversity in their teams, there are still ways that prejudice and bias can sneak into the process. One major way is through the language of job postings. As one example, research from the University of Waterloo has shown that masculine-coded language like “competitive” and “determined” can sometimes deter qualified female talent from applying for certain roles.

To ensure that listings don’t preclude certain applicants, scan your job listings through online tools like Textio or Gender Decoder. To prevent bias from entering into applicant evaluations, consider a “blind” resumé review process, standardized interview formats, and not asking about salary history as well. By being aware of how bias can enter into talent evaluations, companies can stress the inclusion part of diversity and inclusion, preventing issues before they begin.

2. Diversity can mean more diverse unconscious biases, which must be addressed constructively.

Even in the best circumstances, diverse teams are liable to have conflict arising from different backgrounds and points of view. As the Harvard Business Review has noted, overcoming unconscious bias entirely can be difficult, but savvy managers can curtail it in helpful ways:

  • To ensure everyone has equal access to advance, meetings should only be scheduled at the office during hours everyone can attend — not at private clubs or during unusual hours.
  • During meetings, team leads can also be mindful of the flow of conversation by calling on quieter team members or putting controls in place so no one person dominates the entire meeting.
  • When making decisions about promotions or evaluations, focus on demonstrable achievements rather than on nebulous “potential,” which can easily be a product of our own prejudices.
  • Lastly, encourage team members to reflect on how their own experiences shape their views of the world in ways both positive and negative. In some cases, personal assessments from Harvard’s Project Implicit can be helpful in identifying biases as well.

3. Foster diversity and inclusion through psychological safety.

Broadly defined, psychological safety is the belief or feeling that someone won’t be punished or shamed for speaking up or sharing their full self at work. While unconscious biases affect our lives in many ways, it isn’t always easy to identify exactly how they do so in a team that values diversity — nor is it always beneficial to point out each individual team member’s shortcomings. To add to these other strategies, teams can promote both diversity and inclusion by focusing on psychological safety.

For managers and team leads, this can be accomplished by enforcing simple rules that are often overlooked:

  • During meetings, set a policy of active listening and model it for other team members.
  • Encourage an open door policy for feedback or concerns, but make sure these meetings are taken the same way for all members and issues. 
  • Finally, focus on positive accomplishments and avoid assigning individual blame to build team trust and cooperation.

Overcome unconscious bias for better a greater sense of diversity and inclusion

At Babbel for Business, we believe that diversity makes us stronger — particularly when we learn how to speak one another’s language (both literally and figuratively). While promoting different viewpoints is important, balancing both diversity and inclusion remains an obstacle for even the most well-meaning teams.

By promoting psychological safety and addressing unconscious bias, companies can move beyond simple thinking about diversity. Instead, they can focus on creating fulfilling cultures that blend many voices and talents together — resulting in better teams, smoother processes and more innovative work.


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