24 April 2024

Why businesses must nip unconscious bias in the bud

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According to workplace bias expert Buki Mosaku, if career-stifling unconscious bias is not dealt with promptly and effectively it can rapidly escalate into an entrenched company-wide problem. The solution: nip bias in the bud.

By Buki Mosaku



In recent months, some of our most cherished institutions have revealed toxic workplace cultures characterised by racism, misogyny, homophobia, bullying, or a combination of all four, that is hard to fathom.

It’s easy enough to write these off as extreme anomalies unlikely in the corporate world. But are corporate leaders doing enough to ensure the micro-aggressive, biased-driven behaviours that fuel toxicity — and reduce productivity, diversity, equity, and inclusion progress — don’t find a breeding ground that could infiltrate corporate cultures in their organisations?. Some 81% of companies engage in unconscious bias training. Yet painfully slow increases of minority representation in senior roles suggest that when it comes to tackling career-stifling bias, it’s time to think and act differently.

  • Only one FTSE100 listed business — Severn Trent— has females in its top three jobs: CEO, CFO, Chair.
  • There are zero black chairs, CEOs, or CFOs in any FTSE 100 company.
  • Only six CEOs across the FTSE 100 come from a minority ethnic background and 16 minority ethnic CEOs lead FTSE 250 companies

Corporates tackling workplace bias tend to follow one of four ill-fated unconscious strategies, which are creating a diversity and exclusion nightmare rather than the inclusivity dream their good intentions seek:

  1. Do for Them Strategies (DFTS) — The most prevalent strategies, which create a ‘them and us’ or ‘us and them’ situation where the burden is on a presumed guilty majority leadership to create equal opportunities for the presumed poor hapless marginalised victims. Both perspectives are unconscious biases in and of themselves. They leave leadership in a perpetual state of self-correction, and marginalised groups in a perpetual state of reliance on the majority leadership for the advancement of their careers.

  2. Do Nothing Now Strategies (DNNS) — Deny the problem of career-stifling unconscious bias, delay doing anything at all, or do the bare minimum that is just enough to tick boxes and give a veneer of caring one way or another. Such environments run the risk of low output, disengagement, and deep unspoken tensions between majority and marginalised groups that could spill over at any moment.

  3. Do With Allies Strategies (DWAS) — These solutions focus on nurturing an environment of allyship that supports inclusion and equal opportunity. The only problem is that they imply a need for allyship to counter the potential for inequity from the presumed guilty majority leadership. Again, sole accountability rests with majority leadership.

  4. Do With Them Strategies (DWTS) —The least common and most collaborative of the four unconscious strategies are typically characterized by allyship and collaborative DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives to ensure equal opportunity for career progression. The problem is that ultimate accountability for change still rests with the majority leadership.


WHAT’S WRONG?

All four strategies have one thing in common: they are unidirectional, predominantly structurally driven, and based on the premise that career-stifling unconscious bias is a one-way street that starts and ends with majority leadership.

In the process, they exclude minorities from the solution and perpetuates a corrosive ‘Guilty Perpetrator versus Hapless Victim’ mindset that sustains tensions fuelled by distrust from minorities and reverse-bias frustrations in majority leadership.

Source: “I Don’t Understand”: Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace by Buki Mosaku

Furthermore, the reliance on structural changes and majority behaviour-shifts excludes minorities from the resolution model — disempowering the already disempowered, leading to slow and minimal increases in minority representation.

Source: “I Don’t Understand”: Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace by Buki Mosaku

GREAT LEADERS ADOPT A DO-TOGETHER STRATEGY

Great leaders recognise that career-stifling unconscious bias is a two-way street. It has a multi-directional nature.

For instance, a minority’s misinterpretation of interest in their heritage as a microaggression would be based on the minority’s conditioned view of the majority as exclusionary — in other words, minority reverse bias.

Navigating such occurrences requires a deliberate ‘Do-Together Strategy’ to harmoniously address the problem measurably, effectively, and successfully ‘in the moment,’ when it is sensed, and where it has the potential to do so much damage that spreads. This is known as ‘Bias Navigation’.

When implemented correctly, a Do-Together strategy is characterised by…

  1. Company-wide recognition that career-stifling unconscious bias is not a one-way street but is multi-directional and that victims have as much of a role to play in its dismantling as perpetrators.
  2. Staff equipped to effectively navigate unconscious workplace bias when sensed in the moment.
  3. Managers and leaders equipped to effectively navigate sensed misinterpretations of unconscious bias attributed to them.
  4. Periodic bias navigation surveys that assess the extent to which ALL staff feel equipped to navigate multidirectional workplace bias.

WHAT’S THE PAYOFF?

Dozens of studies have found that diversity of all kinds is good for business. When you equip an organisation’s people with bias-navigation skills, you catalyse diversity and inclusion exponentially, and organically expedite increases in minority representation in senior roles. As reported by The Guardian, McKinsey research shows companies with more gender diversity in their top teams are more profitable than average. US financial services firm Morningstar, meanwhile, found companies with equal numbers of men and women on their boards achieved higher stock returns.

It has also been shown that a medium-sized firm which appoints a black executive will experience a 3.1% increase in market capitalization within three days of an announcement.

And research by Goldman Sachs has found that despite representing less than 10% of the population, Asian Americans contributed $1.5 trillion in current dollar terms to the growth in gross domestic product.

Source: I Don’t Understand”: Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace by Buki Mosaku

Unconscious bias, be it subtle yet wounding microaggressions (‘simple bias’) or less tangible career-stifling decisions (‘complex bias’), is fertile ground for insidious toxicity to flourish in the workplace. Do-Together strategies and bias-navigation tactics are the weed killer to nip it in the bud.

“I Don’t Understand”: Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace by Buki Mosaku (Business Expert Press) will be published on 7th September 2023 in paperback and eBook formats, priced £28.95 and £13.80. It can be pre-ordered via Amazon or via the publisher.

For more information, visit www.bukimosaku.com or www.navigatingbias.com.


Q&A Interview With Buki Mosaku

We speak to workplace bias expert Buki Mosaku to find out more about his new book, “I Don’t Understand”, about why unconscious bias is a two-way street, and his guidance on how companies can effectively deal with unconscious, career-stifling workplace bias.


Q. What motivated you to write “I Don’t Understand”?

A. As a person who had personally experienced workplace bias, I felt that not enough attention was being allocated to equipping traditional victims of career-stifling unconscious bias with skills to call-out and navigate it, which left victims totally reliant on the good will and empathy of others for equal opportunity in the workplace. There had to be a better way than the traditional eradication model of IAT (implicit association tests), bias-awareness and bias-interruption training, and traditional imbalanced microaggression training.

This is something I had struggled with throughout my career as a ‘sensed’ victim of racial bias in business and at work, but also as a perpetrator of racial bias driven by my misinterpretation of unfavourable decisions and behaviours as unconscious bias towards me — when they were not. I also realised through conversations with women that they had similar experiences as victims of bias and then likewise concerning people with disabilities, class, age, and so on. Through deep introspection, observation, and research, I realised that I as a minority was frequently the victim of unconscious racial bias but also had a propensity for misinterpretation of bias that perpetuated bias towards me in the form of disengagement from the majority. This type of disengagement from majority leaders leads to underrepresentation in senior roles. This realisation led me on a quest to develop what is now known as the IDU? Methodology and then to write my book, “I Don’t Understand”.

Q. You talk about the ‘multi-directional nature’ of workplace bias. Can you explain more about this concept, and why it is critical to dealing with bias in the workplace effectively?

A. Accepting the multi-directional nature of unconscious workplace bias is not a denial of the disparities in equal opportunities for minorities in the workplace. It’s the first step in resolving the problem! All unconscious bias in the workplace is ‘sensed’ in the moment by the victim. Therefore, there is always room for misinterpretation of bias. When a traditional or non- traditional victim misinterprets behaviours and decisions towards them as driven by bias when they are not then they, the victim, becomes the perpetrator and the traditional perpetrator becomes the victim – regardless of their seniority. In fact, the traditional victim’s misinterpretation is based on their bias which is driven by past experiences, hearsay, a wider narrative about the group the presumed perpetrator belongs to and so on. All of this leads to their own cognitive short cuts to sensing bias when it is not there.

This dynamic is happening all the time — simultaneously in many cases — between both traditional perpetrators and traditional victims. If sensed bias is left unchallenged, it reinforces the bias towards each other in the mind of the perpetrator and the victim. The situation is compounded because both traditional victims and traditional perpetrators tend to speak to others whom they are comfortable with about their experiences as opposed to each other. These people tend to be from the same group, i.e., of the same ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability etc., which further perpetuates preconditioned, respective biases about each group and which in turn creates tension. That tension and suspicion impacts behaviours, decisions, and dispositions that are not conducive to career progression or team cohesion.

The solution to the problem is for both traditional victims and traditional perpetrators to effectively call out bias in the moments they sense it. This has the dual benefit of reconditioning the ‘true’ perpetrator in the moment and resolving unconscious bias that would otherwise negatively affect career prospects of traditional victims, and team cohesion.

To date, organisations are not open about the multidirectional nature of workplace bias. This is either because they don’t understand, have been conditioned to seeing bias as a one-way street, or primarily because majority leaders and members don’t want to seem unsympathetic to the equality cause due to historical baggage relating to past ills such as slavery, systemic racism, sexism, ableism etc. This has led to strategies for tackling workplace bias that have been based on one-way street or unidirectional views of workplace bias and which end up with counterintuitive solutions that actually exacerbate the problem (i.e., spending inordinate amounts of time on bias awareness and interruption training or traditional microaggression training) and, in particular, the problem of underrepresentation of minorities in senior roles. We can see this by the painfully slow artificial, limited progress of minority representation in senior roles within the US and Europe.

Q. Why are the three words “I don’t understand” so powerful in dealing with bias?

A. “I don’t understand”, when turned into a question, is the most powerful form of dispassionate developmental enquiry. It invokes our natural instinct to give direction. In other words, when you turn this statement into a question, aimed at the presumed perpetrator of bias, the person will typically respond by asking, “What don’t you understand?” or by saying some variation of “Let me show you what I mean” — either of which gets you into a conversation about the issue at hand that the sensed victim sees as unconscious bias. The key is to maintain DDE (dispassionate developmental enquiry) until the bias calls itself out — either yours or theirs — and remembering that the bias could be coming from the victim and not the presumed perpetrator.

Buki Mosaku is internationally recognised as an expert on effective communication and workplace bias. He is the founder of DiverseCity Think Tank, Creator of the IDU? Methodology and Mosaku’s Bias Navigation Test (MBNT). As an executive coach he has trained tens of thousands of global clients’ staff

Q. In your book you draw a distinction between ‘defensive fragility’ and ‘white fragility’. Can you please explain the difference and why it’s important to understand this difference?

A. White ‘fragility’ is a term coined by author Robin Di’ Angelo PhD and used by other commentators to describe the defensive and fragile emotions displayed by White people when confronted with the realities of racial bias in the workplace and wider structural and systemic racism. There is no such thing as ‘White Fragility’. The response attributed to White people is a universal response from all humans when they are correctly or incorrectly painted in a negative light. If you were to say that I and other Black people had chips on our shoulders, I would display exactly the same emotions that Di Angelo attributes to a White person when confronted with the realities of racial inequality, so what would you call that? Black Fragility? The reaction the author refers to is what I define as ‘Defensive Fragility’, which is the propensity of all people to be defensive, annoyed, and embarrassed, outraged, angry, and upset when on the receiving end of what they feel are unfair accusations or intimations about their capability, behaviour, decisions, and character — especially in relation to race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, and disability, regardless of whether these intimations or accusations are correct or not.

It’s important to understand the difference, because the thesis and idea of White Fragility is based on unidirectional views of workplace bias, which are born out of conflating wider social injustice issues with workplace bias issues. There is a connection and some similarities but the resolution models for both are very different. When organisations conflate resolution models for wider social injustice — i.e., racism with racial workplace bias or misogyny with gender workplace bias, which begin and end with majority leadership — they come up with the wrong answers, which make the problem worse for those people that need the most help, by perpetuating a Guilty Perpetrator Versus Hapless Victim mindset.

This mindset says that all majority leaders are guilty of unconscious bias to minorities and all minorities are hapless victims of unconscious bias from majority leadership. It says that majority/marginalised careers can only get better if the majority leadership change their behaviour. This excludes minorities from the resolution model. It also leaves and reinforces the idea that minorities are perpetual hapless victims solely reliant on the majority to change for their career progression. And it reinforces the idea of (and leaves) majority leadership as guilty perpetrators in a perpetual state of self-correction to improve the lives of the put-upon minorities/marginalised victims of bias. These are two of the most demeaning, destructive, divisive, and incendiary forms of unconscious bias, harking back to the days of slavery.

Q. What would you say to those who perceive your guidance as giving the majority leadership a pass by saying there is ‘reverse bias’ in the workplace?

A. On the contrary, the honest acknowledgement of the potential for reverse bias puts traditional victims in a strategically advantageous position to effectively call-out and navigate sensed career-stifling bias without invoking defensive fragility. However, not acknowledging reverse bias leaves them as put-upon hapless victims of bias reliant on others to change in order for them to progress. This is one of the most demeaning forms of unconscious bias in and of itself, based on unconscious forms of prejudice such as women ‘knowing their place’, Master vs Poor Slave mindsets, ableist and anti-LGBTQ+ tropes. The only people that benefit from this mindset are consultants, speakers, and authors. I know I’m all three (!) but I’m coming from a solution-oriented perspective as opposed to a wallow-in-the problem-like-pigs-in-mud grifter perspective.

Q. Have you experienced conscious or unconscious workplace bias, and how did you handle it?

A. Yes I have and like most people in both cases I said nothing to the perpetrator.
In the case of conscious bias, I’m not sure my IDU? methodology would’ve worked or been appropriate. In fact, I share a story about this in my book called ‘Utility Gate’, which left me with years of what I’ve come to learn is RBTS (race-based trauma syndrome), similar to PTSD. I regret not responding and I explain exactly what to do in such instances, which are relatively rare.

In the case of unconscious bias, instead of calling the person out I told others who were either from a similar ethnic minority or majority members sympathetic to the equality cause. The problem with this type of ‘seeking support’ call-out, as opposed to effectively calling out sensed bias to the sensed perpetrator in the moment, is that the victim loses the opportunity to recondition the sensed perpetrator and/or themselves in that moment. It also reinforces unconscious bias towards the majority without being 100 percent certain that the victim was on the receiving end of bias in the first place. In many cases, on reflection I was the perpetrator of reverse bias myself, which in some cases is palpable to the presumed perpetrator — reinforcing the bias that minorities have chips on their shoulders.

I Don’t Understand” is the definitive guide to calling out unconscious bias in the workplace. Buki Mosaku’s powerful new book shares unparalleled insight into navigating unconscious workplace bias and provides practical solutions for every manager, decision-maker, and employee


Q. Likewise, have you ever been guilty of reverse bias, and how did you come to deal with this?

A. Yes I have been guilty of reverse bias on many occasions. To be honest, since reverse bias is characterised by internal dialogue and ‘seeking support’ call out, I just felt really bad about the time I had wasted (hours, days, weeks, months, and years in some cases) in unnecessary negative circular thinking about others.

In other cases, I would; like many others do, rationalise my reverse bias thinking and behaviour to avoid confronting it. This often led to me gas-lighting majority members and friends who’d attempt to call out sensed reverse bias. This would make them feel like they were the problem when the problem was my conditioned thinking about the majority. Or even worse, they would convert to my unconscious but definitely contrived perspective and see me and every other — in my case – black minority as hapless victims of perpetual unconscious bias from the majority reliant on the majority to change for them to have a fair crack of the whip.

Q. You are the creator of Mosaku’s Bias Navigation Test (MBNT). Can you explain more about this, and its value?

A. The MBNT is a free assessment tool designed to identify the workplace bias navigation strategy organisations are mostly unconsciously using, and then provide them with an alternative strategy that is the right strategy for tackling career-stifling bias in their firm. I designed MBNT because my observations and research revealed that — without exception — there are underlying tensions in relation to unconscious bias training that come up time and time again due to its inability to…

  • Acknowledge or understand the interpersonal dynamics of the problem;
  • Address the problem honestly and fairly; and
  • Generate measurable results.

This begged the question, what if we could start to effectively navigate it, instead of unconsciously trying to eradicate something that is inevitable, and remove all the associated costs in terms of disengagement, underrepresentation, law suits, attrition, reputational damage and so on, and instead put career-stifling and conflict-generating bias behind us once and for all?, This led me to develop a bias navigation assessment tool, as the first step in that process.

Q. You work with many large national and international corporations on workplace bias. What situations do you find are the most challenging to resolve?

A. This is really good question. I think the biggest problem is when organisations — their senior leadership and people-managers — are wedded to a one-way street (unidirectional) view of workplace bias. This leads to a Guilty Perpetrator versus Hapless Victim mindset in organisations which people refuse to let go of. They adopt a ‘do for them’ strategy and this is their comfort zone. For instance, they may say things like…

“We want to do a workshop with our senior managers and get them to understand their biases and comments, and give them examples of the wrong things they say and do.”

“We want the training to reflect some of things our ethnicity groups tell us they hear etc.”

“We want to give our managers tools to that help them communicate more effectively with (the minority group).”

“We check our data on promoting ethnic minorities in senior roles etc.”

This is all-important but it is only one side of the problem and rules out minorities from the resolution model by not equipping them with skills to navigate the inevitability of workplace bias and putting the burden of change all on the majority to improve minority representation. These well-meaning organisations’ vision and wisdom are impaired by majority guilt and minority pain and retribution. It takes a true leader to, instead, transcend the former and focus squarely on solutions.

It’s almost as if many of these organisations are in a trance and so I have to wake them up and out of the trance. Some refuse to wake up as they are unconsciously comfortable and safe seeing minorities in particular black and then brown ethnic minorities as perpetual hapless victims of bias from the white majority that they can save, and they are desperately trying to distance themselves from that ‘guilty’ majority. What they don’t understand is that this is the biggest unconscious bias of them all and it actually excludes minorities from the resolution model, leaving minorities as perpetual hapless victims of bias.

This isn’t helped by the procession of so-called experts, celebrity activists, and behavioural scientists who have a rudimentary understanding of the interpersonal dynamics of workplace bias and who reinforce the one-way-street view of unconscious workplace bias. In these situations, senior leaders and people-managers become ‘comfortably numb’ — numb to rationale, numb to logic, and numb to common sense. The problem is that this comfortably numb state will eventually turn to uncomfortably numb and lead to similar tensions, and outbursts in some cases, that minorities have. This has been exemplified by some of the high-profile outbursts we’ve seen in recent years from company CEOs, Chairs, and politicians.

Unidirectional strategies for tackling workplace bias pull us apart. Strategies that accept the multidirectional nature of workplace bias in the moment reinforce that we are all the same and bring us together.

Effective communication and workplace bias expert Buki Mosaku says that while many companies wish to tackle career-stifling workplace bias, their approaches are informed by wrong thinking and can actually make the problem worse

Q. You say that workplace bias cannot be eradicated entirely, but should instead be navigated. Can you explain your position here, and explain why trying to eradicate workplace bias is a futile gesture?

A. Since we are ALL biased, there is an inevitability about multidirectional workplace bias. Therefore, engaging in bias eradication is futile, and tantamount to trying to stop the rain, wind, snow, or tide. Unless you can call on celestial powers, this is impossible!. Sailing is a tough sport and there are certain immutable constants such as rain, wind, snow, and rough waves that can thwart the success of the journey, yet people still sail successfully and reach their destinations safely. How? They do this by navigating these constants. It’s the same with workplace bias. It is immutable but it can be navigated. When organisations spend inordinate amounts of time on bias-awareness and bias-interruption training, they are unconsciously trying to eradicate bias and at the same time reinforcing another bias, that majority leaders and people-mangers are guilty perpetrators of bias towards minorities and marginalised groups by default.

The IDU? Methodology equips people with skills to navigate multidirectional unconscious bias as opposed to trying to eradicate it through inordinate amounts of bias interruption, bias awareness, and imbalanced microaggression training.

Q. How do leadership respond to your perspective? 

A. To date, most leaders concur with the logic of my perspective and can see the effectiveness of the IDU? Methodology as a tool for calling out and navigating career-stifling workplace bias to organically expedite minority representation in senior roles.

Some are relieved to have someone say what they’ve been thinking but have been afraid to voice for fear of being seen as unsympathetic to the equality cause.

A few have some trepidation about being seen to be sponsoring someone that is a minority disrupting the conversation on workplace bias and going against the grain by also calling out ‘reverse bias’. But when I explain and demonstrate how acknowledging reverse bias actually helps minorities to transcend and navigate career-stifling unconscious workplace bias, they buy in.

On the few occasions where there is trepidation, I overcome that in a number of ways. Piloting the experience is very powerful and entertaining, and then everyone is bought in so it becomes a no-brainer. Alternatively, and increasingly, we get staff, people-managers, HR, to take the MBNT (Mosaku’s Bias Navigation Test), which illuminates the bias-navigation strategy they are unconsciously following at the moment and, in the process, touches on some of the themes we’d touch on in the session and this makes people learning-ready.

In a very few cases, people are so scared of being seen as unsympathetic to the equality cause that we decide to part ways before we start. These people are now catching on as we become more high-profile. As the saying goes, ‘Success has many parents; failure is an orphan’. Increasingly, more and more of the companies that were in this category are coming back to us to customise and roll out solutions for them.

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