Bias Disruption in the Workplace (Part II)

Ami Kumar

In the first part to this two part article, I talked about the motivation and preparation behind creating and running this activity. Here, I will talk about the setup of the activity itself and the aftermath and feedback we got from it.

The Activity

We allotted two hours for the activity and broke it down into the following segments:

  1. Intro presentation (20 minutes)
  2. Round 1 (35 minutes)
  3. Round 2 (35 minutes)
  4. Conclusion and optional follow up conversations (30 minutes)

Each group got one scenario to discuss per round. We were fortunate to have enough survey submissions that no scenario was repeated throughout the activity, and each scenario grouped at least two survey responses. The rounds were broken up as follows:

  1. Solo brainstorm with post-it notes (3 minutes)
  2. Small group discussion (12 minutes)
  3. Presentation to full group (20 minutes total)

As with the reading materials and the introductory email sent out before the workshop, the intro presentation was intended to get the group on the same page and give everyone a common foundation on which to have these discussions. I included brief definitions of relevant terminology, most of which was introduced in the pre-reading materials sent out before the activity. The terms included psychological safety, technical privilege, microinequity, and subconscious bias. It would be easiest to have these conversations if everyone was equipped with the vocabulary commonly used around this topic. We also took some time explaining the high level goals of the activity, the code of conduct, and the actual format of the activity. We then briefly showed the group the prompts for the solo generation and small group discussion, though we had these visible during the pertinent parts of the entire activity as a guideline.

The prompts were designed to help people either better recognize bias in the future, help guide each individual’s thought process on the best way to interrupt, or provide a basis for discussions with peers on the best way to interrupt different kinds of biases. There were questions asking how the participant would reassess the situation if one of the people in the situation was a manager, if the victim was an introvert, if they didn’t know the victim well, and other nuances that could affect what the appropriate response would be. I included questions asking people to identify the different types of biases that were at play in the situations. Participants were encouraged to write down different interruption strategies based on each type of scenario they envisioned.

We decided to split the engineering team into groups of three, trying as best we could to make the groups as diverse as possible and include people from different teams. We started with solo generation, which was a strategy to engage everyone equally so that everyone could come into the larger group discussions with ideas to contribute. This eliminated the anxiety of thinking on the spot and stopped any one person from dominating the small group discussions. We used post-it notes during the solo generation. Each discussion point, interruption strategy, and question went on its own post-it note so that they could be easily grouped in similar themes in the discussion that followed. During the solo brainstorm, participants were given prompts but asked to focus on the question: What, if anything, would you say or do?

Participants could then easily compare interruption strategies and raise questions or concerns during the small group discussions. The group could easily move around and categorize these individual thoughts during the discussion, in preparation for the larger group presentations. We presented a separate set of prompts during this session, most of which encouraged people to poke holes in the interruption strategies and consider different ways a situation could occur.

After the solo generation and small group discussion, we came back to the full group and each team had a couple minutes to present the high level takeaways during their discussions. Groups were encouraged to share their interruption strategies, different ways they envisioned the situation could play out, and the benefits and downfalls of each of their proposed solutions. However, in most large group discussions, there tends to be a few voices that dominate all the discussion, which went against one of my fundamental goals for this activity. Therefore, I limited questions during this segment to just a couple per presentation, and encouraged the group to write down any exploratory questions or comments they had and revisit them in the last thirty minutes of the activity, which was reserved for more free form follow up discussions. This way, we could achieve equal participation during the workshop and limit the unfair advantage large group discussions give to more extroverted individuals.

The combination of individual brainstorming, small group discussions, and full team presentations allowed us to have productive conversations with every participant fully engaged, while still being able to share all the discussions with the large group. The brainstorming and discussion prompts for the solo generation and small discussions helped keep the discussions on track and allowed participants to practice how to have productive conversations, which they can hopefully apply in the future as well.

The Outcome

I was incredibly pleased with the analytical and thoughtful conversations and productive solutions that came out of the workshop. It was clear people thought about the nuances of each situation, and saw multiple ways the situation could play out. Groups came up with many different interruption strategies and advised on the best ways to determine which one to use based on the exact situation that unfolded. They brainstormed interesting questions, and often advised to check in with the victim of the bias, before or after acting, to determine how they could improve upon their interruption strategies. People brainstormed realistic solutions as well, which is crucial if we want to actually implement these solutions.

One of our example scenarios was: You are in a meeting and notice a co-worker repeatedly cutting off another colleague and attempting to finish her sentences. The group considered whether the best strategy was to interrupt in the moment, or wait until after the meeting and approach the victim. However, they decided interrupting during the meeting was preferable, regardless of how well they knew the victim or had previously had a conversation with her about this behavior. This is because the negative impact this behavior could have on the victim and the meeting dynamic, especially if they noticed this behavior early in the meeting. The advised bias disruption strategy was to re-interrupt the interrupter and somehow draw attention back to the victim. A simple strategy would be to circle back to the colleague who was interrupted and ask, “Is that what you meant to say?” They also advised possibly following up with the co-worker doing the interrupting after meeting, especially if this was a repeated pattern. However, they did brainstorm how the victim’s personality and power dynamics with the interrupter could affect her prefered response strategy, and therefore advised to check in with her before doing so. Finally, they mentioned showing solidarity with a victim in this type of situation was crucial even if there was no opportunity for bias disruption during the meeting.

We took notes during the full team presentations and had groups send in any notes they had themselves for these presentations. We compiled these into a document to send out to the company. Even though it is impossible to address every way biases can manifest in the workplace, we were able to address a lot of the common microinequities people at GC have faced in the past.

We also sent out a feedback survey immediately after the fact and overall got an extremely positive response. People found it useful, which encouraged us to prepare another iteration of the workshop with the rest of the company who did not participate in the first round. I also heard many success stories in the weeks after the workshop about coworkers following up with one another about whether something they had seen was bias, and whether they interrupted it correctly.

I am grateful to the management team for allowing me the opportunity to carry out my vision, to my coworkers who continued the initiative after the first iteration, and most of all to everyone who participated in the workshop for putting their thought and energy into the workshop. My goals were to encourage people to have empathetic and psychologically safe conversations about difficult topics and to speak up and intervene when they see bias. We accomplished both during the session.