Over the last month, we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement brought back into prominence due to extremely tragic circumstances. The movement has been global, and protests have been witnessed across thousands of locations from Los Angeles to Seoul. These events have highlighted issues of inequity at the very foundations of our society, inspiring many people across every creed, color, and nation to act, comment, discuss, and consider these very difficult issues directly.
These conversations and discussions have been understandably challenging, given the complexity of such a sensitive issue. Social media platforms have become the epicenter for many of these passionate discourses.
Despite this, most people recognize that there is a need to take stock and re-evaluate the way our society addresses issues like this. Because of its significance, this challenge requires fundamental changes in our institutions such as education and government. Some of these challenges are so significant that sometimes, we as individuals, feel they seem insurmountable. However, we all have the power to change. In times when things seem completely out of control, it sometimes helps to be reminded of what we, personally, can influence – which is our own actions.
One of the key emotive factors of this issue is that there is a mirror being shone back on all of us, which is not always a comfortable experience. However, like all things that are worth doing, they usually have a component of difficulty at their heart. Specifically, the issues we are facing as a society raises the very systemic nature of bias.
The Mind and Unconscious Bias
Bias surrounds us all, whatever gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, opinion, or ethnicity. All of us – to a greater or lesser extent – have both dealt with some form of bias or have been the arbiter of bias toward someone else. These biases, in most cases, are not a representation of a malevolent belief, they are just a function of how our brains unconsciously and consciously process information and how we internalize the societal norms we have been exposed to.
The human mind is incredible. It is capable of 1,016 processes per second, and according to the University of Southern California, the average brain generates 70,000 thoughts per day. This highlights the volume of processes and thoughts that our brains must manage when making decisions where, as a consequence, psychologists suggest the utilization of a range of cognitive strategies called heuristics to address this.
Heuristics are quite broad and can cover a range of cognitive processes. There are so many different heuristics that our brain deploys (recognition heuristics, fluency heuristics, trade off heuristics, social heuristics etc.). We do not yet fully understand how heuristics explicitly manifest as biases. Nevertheless, they provide a part of the explanation for why bias is something our brains do, despite our intentions typically being well-meaning and inclusive.
Ultimately, the great news is that as long as we are open to accepting that bias is a component of our brains functioning, we are able to take the first steps to address the fundamental issues at hand. By accepting that we can be biased, we are better able to question ourselves and try to consider how we proactively improve things. The next – and even more important – step is for us to be open to address how some of these biases may manifest themselves and ensure it doesn’t influence our actions.
Based on our own research, there are a set of behaviors that we can all deploy with others that can potentially offset and mitigate some of these unconscious thoughts we have. By developing and enhancing these behaviors, we are more likely to learn, grow, and understand people.
Our Behavior Holds the Solution
A few years ago, my colleagues and I were engaged by a large public sector organization to identify the behaviors that underpinned an individual’s capability to work fairly, respectfully, and to engage with all types of people regardless of how similar or how different they are to themselves. The aim of this project was to address issues of inequality and exclusion directly by enhancing our understanding of a concept termed as "intercultural competence."
The research was not just focused on differences related to ethnicity alone, it reflected all the areas that we as humans can be different, be it our opinions, sexuality, gender, disability status, or economic status to name a few. Over the past centuries, we have seen all kinds of diversity that has resulted in friction and resentment. However, with social media, this friction has never been more visible. What is particularly ironic is that there has never been more evidence of the value of difference, with organizations who embrace diversity being shown to support better decision making, innovation, and employee engagement.
In order to understand this issue more fully, we carried out a range of extensive interviews with over 20 diverse leaders and managers, utilizing two separate methods: the "Critical Incident Technique" and the "Repertory Grid Technique." Using these methods, interviewees were asked to compare and contrast effective and ineffective individuals in relation to cultural competence, which enabled us to look deeply at the issue, with a total of 245 separate behaviors identified throughout the research. Survey and performance data were also collected from a sample of 296 managers and employees to help validate the model.
Using this data and collated information, a model of six core behaviors were identified. By demonstrating these behaviors more regularly, we will be better placed to work with others more effectively and be able to learn from others who are different from us.
Empathy: Understands and shows sensitivity towards others’ perspective, views, and concerns, regardless of their background.
Relationship Building: Effectively builds relationships with people from a wide range of different backgrounds, establishing rapport and trust.
Open-Mindedness: Is tolerant and non-judgmental when dealing with others, avoids assumptions and preconceptions, treating each individual and situation separately.
Resilience: Is confident and resilient, remains calm, composed, and controlled in their responses.
Flexibility: Adapts approach to different individuals, identifying solutions based on their specific needs and background.
Orientation Towards Learning: Seeks to learn and develop, takes steps to fill gaps in skills and knowledge (e.g. in relation to different cultures and communities), and is open to new experiences and information.
I find these key components useful to reflect on, especially in these current times, as they help guide my own behavior and ensure I am acting in a way that is aligned with my values. Because our strength lies in our differences, not in our similarities.
Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing in more detail how each of these behaviors can be developed and how we can use them to ensure we work together more effectively.
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