You may have been in a meeting where you see one person constantly get steamrolled, notice one person repeatedly interrupting others, or observe someone feeling uncomfortable to speak up. Although we have, in many ways, grown accustomed to these behaviors and the biases that cause them, they can unfairly favor certain individuals and negatively impact others. Imagine the more productive and fulfilling work life you could have if everyone on your team was fully engaged and felt heard and respected. Your team community would feel stronger and consequently more productive.
These types of biases can be common in a professional atmosphere. A subconscious bias is a mental model of the world and by definition is not something people are aware they have. Mental models themselves are not always harmful. In fact, mental models are constructs that usually help people prepare for and process the world around them. However, sometimes people develop mental constructs about other groups of people that can negatively impact their decisions and subconsciously affect how they treat others. The attitude or stereotype behind the action is the subconscious bias; the action it leads to can be called a microinequity. This subconscious bias is different from overt bias, which is bias people know they have and intentionally act upon. However, subconscious bias can be just as harmful. A female coworker once experienced such bias during a breakfast at a tech conference. She was the only woman at the table, and every time someone new came to the table, they shook hands with everyone at the table but her. Even if it was something they did unintentionally, it still had an impact on her morale and left her excluded in the introductions.
If these biases go unchecked, they can create uncomfortable and even hostile work environments. Teams where people don’t feel comfortable or accepted can be unhappy and are actually less productive. Workplace biases can lead to demoralized and disgruntled employees, create friction on teams, and reduce productivity in the workplace, according to a Career Trend article. A recent Harvard study proved that workplace bias has harmful effects on minorities. The study collected data from a French grocery chain and found that the performance of minorities dropped when they were working with biased managers. Workers at the chain worked with different managers daily and the study discovered significant evidence to prove drops in performance correlated with managers who displayed biased tendencies.
The best way to address the effects of subconscious bias in the workplace is to accept that everyone has developed subconscious biases in some form and have honest discussions about how to recognize and address them. However, it is often more difficult to recognize or stand up against these biases as the victim in these situations. A very effective solution to biased action is bystander interruption.
My intention was to find an actionable and productive way to address subconscious bias at GameChanger. We already had a culture of sharing articles and talks and having open conversations about these topics at GC. I wanted to take this one step farther and somehow address these issues in a more personal and tangible way.
I discovered an outline for an activity on the NCWIT website that discussed having a workshop with your team at work. There were nine scenarios listed in the activity, and the document suggested having discussions about actionable ways to deal with the subconscious biases present in each scenario. It recommended acting out the proposed solutions so that people could practice dealing with these scenarios in real life. My idea started forming after looking at this activity. I liked the idea of having open discussions about real scenarios and coming up with actionable solutions to deal with them. I also liked how this activity stressed bystander interruption, and how it made dealing with bias everyone’s responsibility, not just the victim of these situations. I decided I wanted to develop my own such workshop to try at GC.
I had two goals in mind for this activity: come up with actionable, realistic solutions for dealing with bias in professional scenarios and, on a larger level, learn how to have productive conversations about bias.
Come up with realistic bias interrupters for specific scenarios
I wanted the solutions we came up with to be as useful in day-to-day life as possible. I came up with two methods to achieve this:
- Discuss real life scenarios during the workshop
- Use discussion prompts to keep the solutions specific and realistic
I got the scenarios we discussed from the workshop participants’ past experiences in order to keep the discussions relevant and realistic. This would allow people to empathize with the material and keep them engaged in the workshop. They would also be more likely to encounter these scenarios in the future, and hopefully would have strategies to identify and correct them then.
Even if we used real life scenarios, the solutions we generated would not work in practice if they were too vague and unrealistic. I made it clear that we were coming up with very specific solutions to these problems, down to the exact words the participants suggested saying. I provided discussion prompts to help people make their solutions more detailed and to encourage people to consider multiple possible ways a scenario could play out. Prompts included asking how the participants would modify the solution if they were dealing with people they knew vs. people they didn’t know and how they’d account for the power dynamics of the people involved. This way, everyone in the workshop would be equipped with multiple usable solutions for a specific scenario. They would get practice analyzing different situations and adapting their solutions based on the circumstances.
Practice having discussions about bias
Bias is nuanced, and there is never an easy solution on how to address it. We need to learn how to talk through scenarios and envision possible solutions. The discussion prompts also helped with this goal. They guided the conversations and gave people examples of questions they should ask during conversations about biases.
Another key part of having a productive conversation is making sure all parties in the conversation feel comfortable and heard. I had a strict code of conduct to facilitate a safe environment during the workshop and that would hopefully be applied to future such conversations as well. I had four major guidelines for the workshop:
Psychological safety is a term coined by organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, who defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” It means feeling heard, safe, and able to take risks without fearing retribution or ridicule. It boosts productivity and personal satisfaction, and is necessary for generating good ideas and having happy and comfortable team members. It is crucial when having tough conversations in order to come up with the most productive solutions.
Everyone participates equally
I wanted to limit all forms of bias during the actual discussion, including biases that act against introverts and quiet people in most meetings. Equal engagement is crucial in company culture discussions, and I wanted everyone’s voice to be heard equally. I constructed the actual brainstorming and discussion during the workshop such that everyone could feel comfortable participating and no one person would speak more than the rest. In practice, this included things like enforcing no interruptions and limiting full team discussions, focusing on solo generation of ideas and small group brainstorms.
Don’t vent, and don’t get defensive
While being able to talk and commiserate about issues can be essential in processing the tough things that happen to us, I did not want that to be the purpose of this workshop. I wanted us to be focused on actionable solutions. On the flip side, I did not want anyone to react defensively to the situations addressed. Not only does that stomp on the psychological safety of those around you, but it ends the conversation by taking the focus away from the victims of these situations and onto the perpetrators of the bias. The only way to have productive conversations about reversing and limiting the effects of these biases is to accept that everyone has them. The workshop focused on what to do if you are a bystander who witnesses bias partially so that participants would not feel inclined to vent or get defensive. It is also easier for bystanders to recognize and address bias than it is for the victim in a situation, so this workshop was designed to target what would hopefully be the most effective way in limiting the biases around us.
Once my goals and guidelines were set, I started putting together content for the workshop itself. I got buy-in from our people operations team and upper management early on to make the workshop mandatory for the whole team. The workshop would be most effective and worthwhile if everyone did participate. If only a couple people in each team were present, it would be difficult for those who did to apply the skills we picked up during the workshop with the rest of their teams. We decided the first iteration would be just the engineering team so that the discussions would be as relevant to the participants as possible, and so we could talk about topics as specific as code reviews. If we felt like it was a success, we’d do another version of it with the rest of the company.
I wanted the people in the workshop to generate the content for discussion. The best way to have an engaging and productive discussion was to talk about scenarios participants have experienced, relate to, or find realistic. I collected anecdotes from the group by sending out an anonymous survey to the workshop participants. The survey consisted of one question:
“Discuss a time you experienced or observed subconscious bias in your professional career. What was the situation?”
Participants were encouraged to submit more than one response.
Survey participants were informed these responses would be used in the workshop and were advised to keep their responses general and anonymous, especially if the situation happened while they were at GameChanger. Once we got the survey responses, we wanted to take extra steps to anonymize them and wanted to incorporate as many of the responses in the actual activity as possible. We grouped responses into similar themes, including interviewing bias, problematic language used about a woman or minority, and one person taking or receiving credit for another’s work or idea. We then created composite situations for each group by combining elements from each of the responses, and reframed them so that the subject is an observing third party. For example, if one of the submissions was that the employee’s manager called her “high maintenance” for demanding a peer to meet a deadline, we would reword it to the following:
You overheard a manager telling a female coworker she is “high maintenance.”
We wanted to make sure the scenarios we used were anonymous and could not be traced to any particular situation if they did occur at GameChanger, but still wanted to keep them relatable. We also wanted the scope of the discussion to reach as many of the submitted responses as possible.
I wanted to make sure that the actual workshop format and discussion prompts easily facilitated conversations, and wanted to get feedback on the process in general. I put together a small group of three other people and went through one round of dissecting a test scenario. I wanted to test the times allotted for each part of the discussion and get feedback on the format in general.
Finally, I wanted to make sure people were in the right frame of mind for the workshop and did not want to spend too much time proving that subconscious bias was harmful to the workplace or that this discussion was necessary. I also wanted participants to come in with a common vocabulary. I sent out a short introduction explaining some common biases women and minorities face in the workplace along with a couple pre-reading articles explaining technical privilege and bias interruption. This small introduction to the activity hopefully got people in the right frame of mind so that we could focus on the actual brainstorming the day of the discussion.
We had the resources we needed and had laid out the necessary groundwork for the actual workshop. If you want to read about the activity itself and the aftermath, check out the second part to this blog post.