Do you see what I see?! Our unconscious minds at work.

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.

About 10 years ago, a couple of my best friends and I ventured to New York City for a fabulous “girls weekend”!  I have so many special memories from that trip.  One memory that has stayed with me was an encounter we had with a homeless gentleman on the subway platform.  Like many other homeless people, this gentleman was walking along the platform and asking subway riders for spare change.  When he approached us, he stopped, looked down at the money he had collected and offered it to my friend …. my friend happens to be in a wheelchair.  Rather than seeing this beautiful, intelligent and very successful professional young lady, he saw her wheelchair and he incorrectly assumed that she needed the money more than he did!  What you see is not always what you get.  There are so many layers to people, things and experiences, and we need to be aware of our blind-spots and what may lie in our periphery. And while it’s easy to dismiss this story and attribute it to the ignorance of a poor homeless man, we all have conscious and unconscious biases that impact our perceptions/beliefs and influence the decisions we make.  This homeless gentleman was so focused on my friend’s disability that he couldn’t see her many capabilities.  Moreover, if he was able to see the full picture, he would have noticed that my friend and I were both able to “walk” from point A to point B …. HOW we accomplished this was different …. whereas she relied on her wheelchair to walk/move, I relied on my legs.

(Note: I used the example of physical disability, in my story, for illustration purposes. However, any and all other examples of diversity – gender, cultural, age, etc. – are relevant).

Unconscious or implicit bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realizing.  These biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.  We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications. [ECU: Equality Challenge Unit]

Unconscious Bias at Play:

There is no good or evil when it comes to implicit bias …. We ALL, each and every one of us, have unconscious biases!  To prove this, here are some fun examples of our unconscious minds at play.

FrogOrHorse.2What do you see when you look at the picture on the left?  I first came across this picture while attending a workshop on unconscious bias.  When this was presented on the screen, all I could see was a frog?  The facilitator of the workshop told us that we should be able to see a horse, and I will admit, I could not see it!   It wasn’t until we rotated the picture that I saw the horse …. I needed to change my perspective, and once I did, I saw the image very differently.  Today, irrespective of how this picture is presented, I am able to see both a horse and a frog.  Thus, although we all have implicit biases, if we acknowledge and accept that we are susceptible to unconscious biases, we can indeed manage these biases, and open ourselves to new perspectives and outlooks.

Now, I invite you to view this You-Tube video from a workshop on Diversity and Inclusion that was facilitated by Scott Horton, a diversity consultant with Delta Concepts Consulting.  Specifically, play along with audience for the two games that Scott leads which is 2 minutes into the video, and then at the 3:45 minute markerScott Horton: Fun with the Unconscious Mind

As you can see, it’s very easy to get trapped by implicit biases and prejudices.  Intellectually, we know that these stereotypes are not accurate, yet when ideas are repeated over and over, they become ingrained into our subconscious.  One way to manage these biases is to embrace diversity, and open ourselves to differing ideas, experiences and people.

The Importance Diversity and Inclusion:

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” — Anais Nin

The tolerance scaleTolerance Scale, developed by Korn Ferry and shown on the right, describe 5 different rankings for how we respond to others.  You’ll note, that how we place others on this scale is as much – if not more – a function of ourselves, as it is about the person.  In other words, our biases are at play!  Now imagine yourself as leader/manager, and think about the implications that our biases – both conscious and unconscious – have on recruitment (who we hire) and performance appraisals, as well as simple everyday work interaction.

Recruitment is particularly vulnerable to biases.  Why?  Well, when we hire, we look to solve immediate or near-term needs.  In these situations, we tend to skew in favour of homogeneity (“in-the-box” candidate), as we want to avoid the disruption that different perspectives, experience, background and work style may bring in the near term.   Thus, it’s very important that the recruiter/interviewer/hiring manager be cognizant of their unconscious biases and tendencies, and keep an open mind during the recruitment process.

It’s for this reason – our inherent biases and resultant tolerance scale with which we respond to each other – that diversity, on it’s own, is not enough.  Today, most organizations and leaders understand that they need to embrace a diverse and inclusive culture.  According to Korn Ferry, “if diversity is “the mix” then inclusion is making the mix “work” by leveraging the wealth of knowledge, insights and perspectives in an open, trusting and diverse workplace”It’s inclusiveness that moves us from tolerance and acceptance to appreciation.

Inclusive leadership is about giving everyone the opportunity to be heard and feel appreciated.  It’s about valuing both differences, and also commonality to ensure no one stands out too far from the rest.  It’s also about creating a sense of belonging for all and ensuring all team members are engaged and feel “safe to speak up” and share ideas.  After all, the greatest innovators in the world are those who have made their mark not in spite of their differences and the barriers they’ve had to overcome, but because of it!

Diversity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do for a business …. it’s the smart thing to do!



















You’re how old?! Sshhhh…!!!

It’s attitude and character of a person that define cultural fit and leadership capabilities, and NOT the date stamped on their birth certificate!  

Oh to be that age?  You may be thinking, “what age is she referring to” …. Truth be told, I wish I knew the answer to that very question, myself!

Conscious or unconscious, ageism is the most common bias in the workplace today, and is especially true for leadership roles!  Interestingly, let’s look at the key attributes of a good leader:

  • Integrity
  • Courage
  • Vision
  • Judgment
  • Passion
  • Empathy
  • Emotional Intelligence

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t seem to find an “expiry date” on any of these attributes?  I also don’t know of a boilerplate “start-date” where these qualities kick-in either.   Yet, many of us find ourselves creatively engineering our resumes and talent profiles in order to “mask” our age and mitigate against prevailing age-biases that may exist.

“Some people say they have 20 years, when in reality they have 1 years experience repeated 20 times” – Stephen Covey (to Richie Norton when Norton asked if he was too young to train older executives for Covey)

For me, like so many others, I took on the role of a leader well before my first job as a “manager” …. I was a teacher assistant for the kindergarten classes when I was a youngster in elementary school, school-bus monitor and Red-Cross trained babysitter in my neighbourhood.

Although leadership came naturally for me since childhood, I still needed to “prove my worth” and fight off ageism biases at the workplace.  I can’t tell you how often I heard the phrase “you have plenty of runway in your career” whenever I was considered (and passed over) for roles.  In fact, believe it or not, a colleague once suggested that I “gray my hair” and wear glasses at the office, so that clients (and colleagues) would be more comfortable with me in a management role!  Yep …. in this day and age, where everyone wants to look younger and younger, I was advised to age my appearance so that I could overcome biases – conscious and unconscious!

ageism traffic light

With the blink of an eye, I have now gone from having huge runway (green lights ahead) to entering into the “tail-end” of my career (amber lights).  Have all those leadership attributes, hard work ethic, drive and creative thinking skills that I possessed not that long ago now expired?!  Nope, not at all … If anything, I’m at my prime, growing as a leader and learning new things every single day!  Yet, I find myself needing to omit dates on my resume and avoid references highlighting my 20+ years of experience …. Again, to battle biases and give myself a chance to demonstrate my capabilities rather than simply be dismissed because of my age!

Yes, I realize that ageism biases often come into play not because skills/capabilities are in question, but instead it’s a question of cultural (workplace) fit.  At the end of the day, it’s the TEAM that drives success, so most organizations “hire for fit, and train for skills“!   

I am going to digress for a moment and tell you a dance-story ….

Just over two years ago, I signed up for Ballroom and Latin dance lessons.  What surprised me was the diversity of students at the studio(s).  For those not familiar with Ballroom and Latin dancing – it’s not an “old persons” hobby!  There was a large number of students in their 20s and 30s (early in their professional lives), quite a few in their 40s and 50s (prime of their careers), and another fair-sized group aged 60 and over.  And while the diverse range of ages may have surprised me, what AMAZED me was that everyone at the studio is “blind to age” …. On any given day, you’ll see 30 year olds dancing with the 50 year olds, and the 40-somethings sharing a story with the 60+ and 20 year olds.  Everyone at the studio is united by a common passion and purpose: dance!  

Moreover, not only do we spend time together at the dance studio, but we’ve formed genuine friendships.  We’ve organized social events (on and off the dance-floor), hosted dinners, taken road-trips and vacations together, and supported each other in our various professional roles.

While most of you reading this may not be students of ballroom and latin dancing, I am sure you’re involved in book-clubs, meet-up groups and other hobbies where you interact with others of all ages, and relish in that “diversity of thought” with everyone coming away richer from having participated regardless of their age!

Why is it possible for individuals across generations to collaborate for a common purpose and passion on the dance-floor and outside the office, yet we face ageism in the workplace?!   It’s attitude and character of a person that define cultural fit, and not the date stamped on their birth certificate!  Bias busted! 

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” – Anais Nin

Finally, diversity of thought is more important today than ever.  In this digital-age, where customer experience and ease-of-use trumps loyalty, it’s very important that businesses understand the needs and expectations of their customers.   As a female in my 40s, I shouldn’t be hiding my age to potential employers/clients, but rather the opposite.  Consider this … over the next decade, women (notably those 50 and over) will control two-thirds of consumer wealth and be beneficiaries of the largest transference of wealth in the history of America (with similar statistics in Canada).   Yet this same demographic – the very customer segment that most businesses will be battling for – are often cast aside by executives and recruiters on the notion of “lack of organizational fit”!   As Gord Nixon, former CEO of RBC, often said “diversity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do for an organization, but it’s more importantly the SMART thing to do for the organization’s success”!

Whether it exists as a conscious bias or unconscious bias, ageism is very real in the workplace.  We can’t “wish it away” or pretend it’s not there, but instead must face it head on!  And while I may be in that underdog position by virtue of my age …. I’m definitely still in the game!

“Life may not be the party we hoped for …. but while we’re here, we may as well dance” – Jeanne C. Stein

Care to join me for a cha-cha… ?  I will see you on the dance floor!  🙂