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!