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Tackling inherent biases and changing minds
27 January 2021
Sophia Wolpers hosted a recent meeting of the Women’s Network Forum (WNF). The WNFis a unique network of cross-industry leaders whose goal is the advancement of gender balance and equality chaired by HRH The Countess of Wessex. To provide support and food for thought in this difficult period, the WNF is running a series of virtual conversations with female leaders for the gender equality networks in our own organisations.
At the last Women’s Network Forum, hosted by London First, I had the opportunity to put questions on inherent biases to Change my Mind podcast hosts Alison Goldsworthy, Alex Chesterfield, and Laura Osborne – the three women behind forthcoming book Poles Apart and the Depolarisation Project. Laura is also London First’s Strategic Communications Director.
Inherent bias in statistics is a systematic error of an observer – a blind spot if you will – which means the outcome of the assessment is incorrect. In organisations, this can play out as a tendency to make a snap judgment – to hold a prejudice against someone based on a pre-existing bias the holder may not be aware they have. So, for example making a decision to prefer one applicant over another despite their same skill sets, often because of non-objective categorisations we make.
Inherent bias training is much talked about, but it hasn’t shown to be a silver bullet to overcome this problem. Because it is hard to change hard-wired ways of thinking, we explored how we can focus on what we can change – and that this needs to be more connected to the environment in which we make decisions, rather than just a change individuals make one at a time.
So, what can organisations, and we as individuals, do to create an environment in which it is easier to change your mind and make better decisions?
Laura’s business-focused section zoned in on three lessons observed from talking to experts in their various fields for the podcast:
Business leaders are important to the process, but not that important. Drawing on the thinking of Jeff Pfeffer, Laura explained that one of the best things a good leader can do is ensure they don’t stand in the way of progress. Conversely, a bad leader is often truly detrimental and can undo a positive culture very quickly if they don’t support it. Business leaders should listen and use their powers to open doors and create the space and opportunity for change.
There is an inherent challenge for many of us to reconcile the ambition of being liked with a need to be able to tolerate healthy conflict, something Stanford Professor Maggie Neale has done significant work on. We need to become more comfortable in being called out, but also in calling out others – which is a critical part of the learning process towards more anti-racist and more equal organisations. This can be difficult on a personal level – but it is a discomfort we need to accept. Organisations can construct structures around giving feedback and raising topics/problems that make this easier for different types of personalities to feel more comfortable to raise their voice on critical issues.
Flowing directly from the second point: there is the need to create an open space for discussion — the space for debate, enabling people to be heard – but also to listen. Organisations need to recognise that people can get things wrong, while supporting them in moving forward their own understanding. Creating the space for people to have the freedom to change their minds without ridicule is vital, as well as enabling people to say they don’t have the answer and need more information.
Organisations also need to be serious about tackling inherent discrimination – it is not just a communications exercise of saying you are willing to tackle these topics – concrete plans on what steps organisations are taking and targets that they want to reach at a fixed point in time matter. At London First, we have started to publicly set out our plans on our inclusion and diversity hub.
The webinar also shed light on many other points around the difficulties around campaigning without driving divides, from feel-good narratives to how to deal with facts and figures and reaching across the aisle. If you’d like to know more, you can access a video of the session here: https://youtu.be/xAc1MpHzetc
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