Over the past five years, our annual Diversity Summit has created opportunities for important conversations on issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. This year, through a series of virtual events, we’re bringing together fresh perspectives and ideas to help us keep making progress.

Why is inclusion so important? Think of its opposite: exclusion. All of us will have suffered exclusion at some point in our lives and know it’s a painful experience. In the workplace, exclusion can affect productivity, engagement, well-being and whether we’re likely to stay with an organisation.

One of the best ways companies can combat exclusion is by striving to overcome the unconscious biases that prevent all of us from being as inclusive as we’d like. There are hundreds of these biases, from affinity bias (“I like you because you’re like me”) to ‘group think’ (pressure to fit in drives inaccurate judgements, or suppresses ideas). We’re all subject to them.

To consider how unconscious biases work, Anita Kirpal and Chris Whaley suggest that we try visualising a chief executive – someone who’s married, with beautiful children, a dog and a big house. Most of us – if we’re honest – are likely to visualise a middle-aged, able-bodied, heterosexual white man. But today we have abundant examples of CEOs who don’t fit that mould – whether it’s Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Christopher Bailey at Burberry or Sharon White at John Lewis.

The point here is that the world is rapidly changing – and our unconscious biases haven’t kept pace. We may not consciously accept stereotypes like the white, male CEO, but they can still affect our views and behaviour. So we need to acknowledge the power of these biases and consider what we can do to overcome them.

The identity iceberg

Most of us consider diversity and inclusion to be issues centred on obvious characteristics such as race, sex and age. But it’s more complex than that.

Anita and Chris characterise our identities as an iceberg. Above the water are the things we recognise instantly: skin colour, gender, disability and age. But below the water are a great many other identities that combine to make us who we are: our style of thinking, socio-economic status, political views, life experiences, education – and many more. How we think is shaped by who we are – that’s the premise of diversity of thought.

We take only a hundredth of a second to register someone’s skin colour, and only half a second to recognise their gender. That means we make assumptions based on the small amount of data that we notice first.

System 1 and System 2

This comes down to how our brains work. Our minds operate two distinct systems. One of these is the conscious mind or System 2 – associated with reason and complex decisions. It’s slow and requires effort but it’s reliable. Yet over 90% of our decisions are made by the unconscious mind or System 1. It’s quick and automatic, but it’s also error-prone because it relies on heuristics – mental shortcuts.

What can we do about bias?

It’s now recognised that training people to be aware of bias won’t reliably change behaviour, as we quickly revert to our mental shortcuts. Anita and Chris suggest some important things to consider when encouraging more inclusive behaviour:

  • accept we all have biases
  • broaden how we think of diversity
  • create conditions where people feel safe to be themselves
  • regularly practice actions to overcome our biases and be more consciously inclusive.

Putting it into practice

So, what can we do now to be more consciously inclusive? There are several techniques that can help, many of which we’re implementing at Standard Life Aberdeen (SLA).

Rethink how things are done

Techniques include ‘flipping the script’. We imagine how we would respond to a question if someone very different – especially someone more senior – had asked it.

Or, if you mentor or are mentored, think about changing roles around - carry out reverse mentoring where people from diverse backgrounds are mentors for others. This year at SLA, we designed a programme with our ethnicity and multicultural employee network. The programme pairs senior leaders with mentors from the network. It has proved a very effective way for leaders to better understand the real-life experiences of ethnic minority colleagues.

One important area where companies can seek to tackle bias is recruitment. As Anita notes, changing the way you design roles, search for candidates, reframe your definition of an ideal candidate and qualification requirements will all influence who is successful in a recruitment process. At SLA, we’ve been rethinking our recruitment processes to remove potential barriers. For example, we use software to identify gendered language in adverts. We also use ‘masked screening’ of CVs to remove identifying characteristics like name and education.

Difficult conversations

Perhaps the most important step for an organisation that wants to advance inclusion is to become comfortable with difficult conversations. At SLA, we’ve introduced various tools and learning solutions to support this. These include our ‘Talk about Race at Work’ guide and discussion sessions.

It’s also important to allow people room for mistakes. Chris argues that a key ingredient here is psychological safety. This enables people to discuss their thoughts and feelings freely. Google found psychological safety was the most important factor in building effective teams. It’s also crucial in allowing people to recognise and overcome their biases.

By accepting and addressing our biases and working to counteract them, we ultimately strive for better outcomes for all.

In the end, everyone benefits from greater inclusion. As the identity iceberg indicates, there will always be situations where any one of us may face exclusion. By accepting and addressing our biases and working to counteract them, we ultimately strive for better outcomes for all.

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html