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Navigating Bias and Conflict: Laying Groundwork for Equality

By: Derrick Nelson
Commerce Bank Corporate Inclusion & Diversity Manager

Many workplaces have implemented diversity and inclusion trainings and policies, and for good reason. This intentional action demonstrates to employees that your business aspires to have equal and inclusive environment. But while companies invest an estimated $8 billion annually in advancing diversity training efforts, gender and minority bias continue to be a challenge. Efforts tend to fall short of the desired results if they are not continuous and evolving.

Data indicates that a simple bias training typically doesn’t move the needle. And, even if that training is executed flawlessly, culture doesn’t change overnight. Workplaces may not ever be perfectly bias-free, but they can head off anti-diversity thinking of the past and see results when leaders choose to become aware of their biases and are open to learning and taking action.

Bias, inequality and conflict are closely related. The solution lies in establishing a culture that supports, values and rewards differences, and actively combats patterns of bias. Here are some strategies to explore as you look to strengthen your workplace.

Build awareness of bias patterns — in you and your team

A bias is a tendency, prejudice or inclination against something or someone. Biases exist consciously, knowingly and intentionally, and unconsciously, by being unaware. Some biases are minor, like preferring coffee with cream and without sugar. But when biases are rooted in stereotypes, rather than knowledge and facts, there’s potential for harm. To stop biases from causing conflict and furthering inequality, start with awareness.

Bias can manifest itself in many ways. Some surround how hard an employee must work to prove themselves, or what it takes to establish credibility; for example, one person may be judged on potential and another on track record. Another pattern of bias experts note is the range of acceptable behavior. One team member may be scrutinized for arriving 15 minutes late, while another is hardly scolded for a similar delay.

Other biases surround exclusion. An employee may be uninvited or unwelcome at social events or conversations at work. Or, employees may be described as “lacking executive presence” or “not fitting the culture,” although their performance and experience say otherwise. When we recognize our biases, we can begin to think and respond differently.

Start the conversation

Another way to disrupt bias and lay groundwork for equality is to start the conversation surrounding discrimination and marginalization. For example, your organization can implement a guest speaker series or forums in which open discussions are encouraged.

While it’s normal to experience a bit of discomfort when first broaching these topics, the goal is to make inequality visible, understand its complexities and communicate ways to start tackling these issues of bias. Modeling what it looks like to speak candidly about matters like parental leave, wage gaps, racial diversity amongst leadership, microaggressions and similar topics will bring awareness to barriers. When management takes the first step, employees can feel free to follow with a sense of psychological safety.

Empower with data

Organizations can empower managers and supervisors with up-to-date data and information on why anti-bias work is worth it and why ignoring bias and inequality may be more expensive than it appears. Of hiring managers, 10% predict losing employees as a result of having no diversity and inclusion programs. And data released by the Office of Compliance revealed more than $17 million in settlements had been paid to victims of sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace harassment issues between 1997 and 2017.

On the other hand, there’s plenty to gain when your organization actively navigates conflict and inequality. Well-managed diverse groups perform better, are smarter, have a broader range of ideas and a stronger commitment to their organization.

Have a plan for addressing negative behavior

Bias often comes to life unconsciously, which can make it hard to spot and hard to address. When a harmful bias becomes apparent or an equality-related conflict arises, too many leaders look the other way. Even if a behavior is unintentional, leaders risk so much if they downplay or ignore these incidents. Instead of shying away from awkward conversations, consider them opportunities to invest in your employees and your company’s future.

Bias and conflict should be considered on the same level of importance as things like productivity levels, costs and safety protocols. Leaders can lead by example to ensure behaviors surrounding equality are a natural, healthy part of the work environment and company culture.

This can take form by providing employees with one-on-one feedback regarding how their actions, biases, comments and tactics have marginalized others, but put education at the heart. Explain what type of impact these moments have on others, establish consequences as needed and engage your HR department to ensure conflicts are handled accordingly.

Authentic inclusion results in environments where your team can show up as themselves and, more than fit in, truly belong.

Tackling bias and conflict requires an actual, focused effort from leaders. Putting a quota in place or implementing another training initiative may display a level of awareness, but it’s not enough to solve for the inequalities that exist. Management and executive leaders must take the extra steps to educate themselves on why these conflicts exist and the ways in which they may be unknowingly contributing to bias and barriers.


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