How do I handle difference?

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As humans, not all of us like change. We like familiarity. If something feels different from our own ‘normal’ way of doing things, it can stop us from learning, adapting to and embracing new ideas. It is often natural for us to believe that the way we do something is correct and even the best way. Doing things differently can make us feel outside our ‘normal’ comfort zone and make it difficult for us to accept change or differences.

Think about a specific task such as making your perfect cup of tea or coffee. It will come naturally to you because you are used to making it your way. If you were told to suddenly make it differently, it would feel a little strange and you may not like doing it the new way. However, by making the conscious decision to try the new way, you are now aware of another way of doing it, and you are now trying out something new. The more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel and you may even prefer it or like the new way of doing it.

So, how do you think you handle difference? Are you comfortable with anything that sits outside your version of your ‘normal’ comfort zone? What will you try to do differently to help you see a new perspective?

Can you think of one thing that you would like to try and do differently at your place of work to create an inclusive environment?

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Activity

Here is an engaging short talk by Jay Smooth, about ways to overcome the potential discomfort of ‘talking about race’. This is an example of consciously trying to see and do something from a new perspective.

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Strategies for counteracting bias

It can be difficult to talk about bias and inequality and inclusion. It is important for leaders of organisations and departments to recognise that it is their responsibility to initiate, support and lead these conversations. Additionally, there are some steps we can all take to reduce bias in our place of work.

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Promote and encourage awareness

If we are aware of bias we can begin to manage it and its effects. Question what you hear, question biases in yourself and raise awareness of bias in others. Ask yourself and others the questions below, which may help to promote awareness of and reflection upon bias:

  • Is my opinion factually true?
  • Is it always factually true?
  • What evidence do I have for my opinion?

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You could try one of the Harvard Association Implicit Tests to find out what your biases are.

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Create inclusive environments for colleagues in meetings and discussions

One of the ways that bias can affect others is through micro-behaviours during meetings and discussions. If you are managing a meeting, you can play a significant role in reducing the effects of bias, both within the meeting and in its outcomes. Here are some ways that you can minimise these effects.

  • Acknowledge everyone at the meeting, not just those you know.
  • Value others’ time as much as you value your own. Arrive on time, and if you are late, apologise. Pay attention and ensure you are prepared.
  • Do not always sit next to the same person at every meeting. If there is someone in the meeting you don’t know very well, sit next to them.
  • Limit interruptions, including checking your emails or using your phone. The impact of micro-behaviours associated with the use of technology should not be underestimated.
  • If you disagree with someone else’s opinion, respond constructively rather than giving a negative response that may stop this person from voicing their opinion again.
  • Ask for everyone’s opinion at the meeting. Remember not to always draw upon the same people’s opinions consistently; but equally do not discount their opinion either.
  • Ensure the final decision is balanced and not influenced by the power that a single individual may hold.
  • Be open to challenges from all parties by asking for counter opinions and examples.
  • Use open-ended questions so that everyone can get involved in a conversation.

Activity

Watch this video about behaviours that can undermine and also promote a positive, inclusive work environment.

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Challenge and take action

Some behaviours may seem small but they can have an enormous effect on others.  Challenging other people’s negative or obviously biased behaviour is difficult, especially when they are senior to you.

It is important to challenge others even when it is difficult as it is seen not just by those you are challenging but those who are watching.  Even though you may not change the mind of the person you are challenging, those who are watching will see your actions and may be comforted by them or they may lead to them feeling more confident about challenging and taking action.

Here is an example of how gender bias can operate, of how it can feel to be on the receiving end of it and of what can be done to reduce the effects.

Due to a staff shortage in another of the organisation’s offices, a manager had to send a member of his team to work at that location. There were two staff members to choose from, both equally competent, both with a spouse. One was male and the other was female. The manager decided to send the male colleague on the basis that his wife could look after their children and that he would be emotionally stronger being away from his children than the female. The manager did not consult either staff member.

What are the consequences?

  • By not asking either staff member for their views, the manager made the assumption that the female staff member would not be able to get childcare and that the male staff member had no caring responsibilities.
  • The female colleague may not put herself forward for future travel commitments due to a feeling that she won’t be picked.
  • It is highly possible that this decision could decrease the confidence of the female in question. A decrease in confidence can also have a number of effects including a decrease in quality of performance and therefore a decrease in selection for visible projects, leading to a vicious cycle.

What are the beliefs and biases, perhaps some of them unconscious, of the manager that led to this decision?

  • Women with children do not want to travel/be away from their children.
  • By making this decision I am looking after the woman’s best interest.
  • Men are willing to travel at short notice as they do not have the same commitments as women.
  • Men with spouses/long-term partners are able to give more commitment to their job as their wife will look after their personal or family commitments.

How can I avoid these biases or beliefs affecting my behaviour?

  • Reflect upon and question your assumptions.
  • Ask a colleague to evaluate your decisions.
  • If you know that an individual has personal challenges, make your decision purely on competency and experience.
  • Talk to both the individuals.

What do I do if I have a similar experience?

Remember that the manager did not make the decision out of malice and may be unaware that any form of bias entered their decision-making process. You should ask them to articulate their thought processes and then, where appropriate, try to make them aware of any bias that was involved.