Workplace bias and communication expert Buki Mosaku says that companies set upon eradicating workplace bias are wasting their time and money upon an impossible objective. Instead, they must equip their leader and staff with the skills to navigate unconscious bias effectively.
Diversity in the upper ranks of corporate UK continues to be an elusive goal. Take, for example, these findings:
There is only one FTSE100-listed company that currently has women in its top jobs: CEO, CFO, Chair.
There are currently no black chairs, CEOs, or CFOs in any FTSE 100 company.
There are currently only six CEOs across the FTSE 100 who come from a minority ethnic background, and only 16 minority ethnic CEOs leading FTSE 250 companies.
To fast-track minority representation in senior corporate roles, companies must avoid three fatal errors that are creating a diversity and exclusion nightmare in the corporate world.
A bias eradication approach misunderstands human nature and only serves to reinforce unequal power relations and unhelpful stereotypes.
‘Bias navigation’, by contrast, reflects an understanding of how we all operate in the world and, by challenging stereotypes, offers the best chance to reset power relations.
Many senior executives (whether consciously or unconsciously) approach the issue of increasing minority representation from a place of majority guilt. The guilt is founded on an appreciation of how centuries of systemic and unconscious workplace bias from majority leaders has served to exclude minorities from opportunities for career advancement and resulted in their underrepresentation in senior roles. This, combined with an unconscious apathy, makes them complicit in existential inequality targeted at specific groups.
Majority leaders make a desperate attempt to empathise with, and respond to, the understandable pain of minorities due to years of exploitation and unequal career development opportunities in the workplace. They also attempt to show solidarity and affinity with the understandable retribution mindset of minorities aimed at a system that has robbed ethnic minorities of their economic power.
At first glance, both standpoints seem laudable. But, in reality, the obsession with guilt, pain, and retribution — when it comes to workplace bias — impairs leaders’ (and their staff’s) wisdom and vision in terms of solution orientation.
Why? This approach almost always takes leaders down a path of spending inordinate amounts of time on unconscious bias awareness, imbalanced microaggression, and bias interruption training. This same path is ardently advised and encouraged by a procession of celebrity activists, behavioural scientists, authors, and consultants — yet very few have more than a rudimentary understanding of the interpersonal dynamics of unconscious workplace bias.
A strategy that focuses solely on bias eradication misses the point. Bias is part of the human condition and can’t be eradicated. Setting out to eradicate workplace bias is, then, an expensive waste of time. It’s tantamount to sailors trying to stop the current and wind driving their boat. We must be confident that even with these hazards that could potentially thwart our journeys, millions of people have been sailing and safely reaching their destinations for centuries. How? They understand that these elements are there and they navigate them.
While we can’t eradicate unconscious workplace bias completely, we can learn — and teach others — how to navigate it: carefully removing the cumulative impact of workplace bias issues and dissipating the problem over time.
It’s understandable that corporations and individuals conflate what’s needed to end inequality and discrimination in the wider world with what is needed to create a workplace where minorities can flourish. This, however, is a mistake.
Conflating the two firmly shuts the door to an ocean of simpler, faster, and more effective solutions for tackling career-stifling bias and the under-representation of minorities in senior roles.
When we equate workplace bias with broader social injustice out there, we disempower marginalised groups in here (‘in here’ being the workplace). Out there, the solutions begin and often end with the need for those in authority to change something — specifically, those in government being pushed to change laws, policies, and practices.
The workplace offers far greater scope for collaborative interpersonal solutions that are led by the traditional victim of bias as opposed to senior leaders and people-managers (which is a replication of the context-inappropriate ‘out there’ social injustice resolution model).
Almost all attempts to address workplace bias are based on an assumption that there are two parties involved. One is the poor hapless victim who needs to be helped. The other is the powerful guilty perpetrator who needs to see the errors of their ways so as to fix the problem. This approach is all wrong — not least because it fails to recognise that we’re all biased and that we all have a role to play in fixing what needs to be fixed.
Workplace bias is truly multidirectional. Leaders and managers may well perpetrate unconscious bias against minorities in the workplace but traditional victims can also do the same.
Majority leaders and people-managers are often reluctant to openly acknowledge the multidirectional nature of workplace bias for fear of seeming unsympathetic to the equality cause. But this paralysis is creating far greater damage than the fear holding them back, because it feeds into core assumptions that shape how they address workplace bias.
One such assumption is that they (the guilty perpetrators) are the holders of the solution to workplace bias; that the solution begins and ends with them.
The other assumption is that minorities are hapless victims of bias from the majority and can only progress their careers if majority leaders change their unconscious behaviours and decision-making toward them.
These assumptions and the strategies that flow from them fail to recognise the multi-directional nature of workplace bias and, in doing so …
They ignore the fact that all unconscious bias is sensed in the moment. Whenever anything is sensed, there’s room for misinterpretation (in this case, minority misinterpretation of bias). Whenever a minority misinterprets behaviour as driven by unconscious bias when, in fact, it’s not, the minority becomes the perpetrator and the traditional perpetrator becomes the victim in that moment, regardless of their role or seniority.
They take power away from minorities, excluding minorities from the resolution model and confining them to the status of perpetual hapless victims of bias, solely reliant on the majority for the solution and the subsequent advancement of their careers.
They place the full burden of change on majority leaders and people-managers, consigning these groups to a perpetual status of guilty perpetrators of unconscious workplace bias towards minorities.
They reinforce destructive and divisive meta-biases about each group, demeaning minorities and demonising the majority in the process.
We’re stuck in a resolution model that isn’t working and will never work. But the solution is relatively straightforward. Senior leadership must unsubscribe from the well-meaning but fundamentally flawed unidirectional ‘guilty perpetrator versus hapless victim model’ by transcending majority guilt and minority pain and retribution. Instead, the focus must be squarely on a collaborative solution for tackling unconscious bias in the workplace.
“I Don’t Understand”: Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace by Buki Mosaku is out now. This eye-opening analysis on tackling career-stifling unconscious bias is the must-read for every HR professional.- “
Minorities have a role to play here. They should refuse to accept an unequal place at the table and refuse to accept the role of hapless victim.
What Does a Collaborative Solution Look Like?
‘Collaboration’ means all are working together toward a common goal of equipping everyone — staff, people-managers, and leaders — with skills to navigate the inevitability of multidirectional workplace bias. This includes understanding what to do:
How to think;
What to say;
When to say it; and
The way to say it
Through a do-together strategy, we can turn the current diversity, and exclusion nightmare into the diversity, and inclusion reality we all want to see.
“I Don’t Understand”: Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace by Buki Mosaku (Business Expert Press) is out now in paperback and eBook formats, priced £25.95 and £13.80. It can be ordered via Amazon or via the publisher. For more information, visit www.bukimosaku.com or www.navigatingbias.com.
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