Beating Back Bias for Institutional (and Personal) Advantage

It seems every year that new evidence, empirical and anecdotal, supports what we see in our own organizations: the impact of successfully integrated diversity is measurably positive. Why, then, are so many companies unable to capture those benefits?

Organizations can craft strong policies on diversity and enforce them consistently through the ranks. In fact, many of the world’s regulatory environments have mandated diversity standards. But is compliance enough to glean all the competitive advantages of diversity in the workplace? If the full range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives share a table with perfectly blended demographic representation, is that enough? What is the difference between well-executed policies and genuine diversity and inclusion?

The answer may include “acquired diversity.”

Lauren Leader-Chivée, founder and CEO of All In Together, is a writer, researcher and thought leader on diversity and women’s issues in the workplace. She defines acquired diversity as “a perspective, a worldview and a way of thinking, interacting, and working with others that’s more inclusive, open and critical.” That world-view may be the key to leaders becoming true champions of diversity, modeling the way for more inclusive (and therefore more successful) organizations.

In a recent interview, Leader-Chivée explained that the notion of acquiring diversity is a bit tongue-in-cheek. “You are not literally ‘becoming diverse,’” she says, rather, someone with acquired diversity is a person who “develops a deep and meaningful sense of empathy for the experiences of those who are outsiders; someone who develops a kind of understanding for the experience of others.”

In her recently published book Crossing the Thinnest Line (Hachette, Sept. 2016), Leader-Chivée writes, “We found that leaders with certain life experiences were more likely to foster a speak-up culture, to support and encourage others, to be open to feedback, and to ensure everyone would be heard.” Those are the leaders who foster the inclusion of diverse voices, reaping rewards that are hard to deny.

With evidence mounting that people who have developed a deep sense of empathy lead in more inclusive, collaborative ways, Leader-Chivée says, “Having leaders who can really relate to and have empathy for those who are different from them is a powerful differentiator in business.”

For example, in 2012, Credit Suisse identified a strong association between diverse leadership and higher performance. Also in 2012, McKinsey measured the twoyear performance of 180 publicly traded companies across Europe and North America and found that the return on equity and margins on earnings were significantly higher for companies with the most diversity than those with the least. The findings from 2012 were confirmed by Credit Suisse in their 2015 follow-up study, “The CS Gender 3000: Women in Senior Management.”

Then why isn’t there more diversity at the board level and in senior management? Credit Suisse identified the greatest obstacles to achieving greater gender diversity: “cultural biases, workplace-related biases and structural/policy issues, with the first obstacle being the most difficult to overcome.”

According to the non-profit, international research organization Project Implicit, implicit bias “is one that occurs outside of conscious awareness and control. Even if you say that men and women are equally good at math, it is possible that you associate math with men without knowing it. In this case we would say that you have an implicit math-men stereotype.”

These unconscious biases can create barriers for the promotion of diversity in organizations at every level. For example, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University recently published the annual “State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2016.”

Among the studies published in the Kirwan report is an experiment conducted by researcher Eric Kushin on voice, racial identification and the employment process. Kushin’s study assessed individuals’ ability to identify an unseen speaker’s race as black, Asian American, or white. Participants were asked, based on a voice message, whether a candidate might be considered for employment. “While 71.4% and 85.7% of participants stated they would definitely consider hiring the speaker they considered White or Asian, respectively, only 8.2% of participants agreed with this statement in relation to the speaker they perceived to be Black.”

According to the Kirwan institute, “implicit biases are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality.” Given that, what are individuals and organizations to do? Project Implicit recommends that those who would try to diminish their implicit bias “focus instead on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to operate.”

Project Implicit suggests that individuals can “blind” themselves from gender and race during decision-making. “If you only evaluate a person on the things that matter for a decision, then you can’t be swayed by demographic factors.”

For example, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program conducted a study on gender diversity in U.S. symphony orchestras. The researchers found that “using a screen to conceal candidates from the jury during preliminary auditions increased the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next round by 11 percentage points. During the final round, “blind” auditions increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected by 30%.”

Leader-Chivee offers a hopeful perspective: when leaders work to acquire diversity, they diminish their own implicit bias. Working on a diverse team, living abroad, or seeking personal connections to people who are “other” can contribute to a meaningful sensitivity to and appreciation for people’s differences. That in turn can lead to better inclusion of diverse voices in organizations and even communities.

Anecdotes on how personal connections can drive change abound. For example, the Pew Research Center notes “those who know someone who is gay are about twice as likely to favor gay marriage as those who do not.” By making a concerted effort to broaden our personal experiences, we can bridge what divides us.

What will it ultimately take to leverage the economic, social and personal advantages of diversity? Perhaps the answer lies first in acknowledging that the line between “us” and “other” is indeed razor-thin; and second, drumming up the courage to cross it.

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