“Yes, these things can happen with people” – It is not uncommon to hear such a line when we discuss about biases. There is usually the belief that while we have seen others do it, we do not work from our own biases. It is easy to understand how this belief plays out, when we particularly talk of unconscious biases. As individuals, we are often blind spotted about the impact that our unconscious biases have on the decisions we make and the actions we take.
What would this mean in the workplace? How does it impact the functioning of a company? As leaders, who are called upon to make key decisions, how and where do these biases come up and what could follow from that? These are questions that gain even more relevance today as organizations strive to create spaces that are diverse and inclusive, and those in senior leadership positions have a key role to play in this regard.
We, at First Drop Theatre, conducted an online workshop on unconscious biases – ‘Me and the Many’ – for a group of senior leaders of a leading IT firm. The workshop used the tools of Applied Theatre to explore unconscious bias, the awareness that we can develop to respond in a more informed manner in situations, and the mindset we can have to be open to differences and to expect the unexpected. The observations from the workshop were quite insightful.
About Unconscious Bias
Unconscious bias refers to the unintentional prejudices we all absorb and carry, and this could be on the lines of gender, religion, race, region, educational background, cultural background, age, looks and more. All of us carry unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and that these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. These stereotypes are formed by individuals outside their own conscious awareness. It occurs automatically and is triggered by the brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations that are influenced by personal background, experiences, memories, and cultural environment1. It is quite natural then that individuals are not always aware of the biases they might be carrying and how they might be influencing their actions.
As we started to touch upon the topic in the workshop, it seemed that the premise was not unfamiliar to the participants. This was to be expected considering their positions and experience. However, we experienced that there was some sort of distancing at play. It came up in how the leaders spoke about having gone beyond these kinds of biases as their careers have progressed and of observing such instances in their teams. It felt like a narrative of ‘this might be happening with others’. To us, this seemed like the crux of the larger narrative that plays out; not just restricted to this one particular group of participants but indicative of the more widespread patterns that might be at play in most organizations. In fact, this is one of the key challenges around unconscious bias – of individuals being unaware of even its potential presence in one’s actions.
As Jim Barnett, CEO of Glint, says the first step towards advancing inclusive behavior is being aware of your blind spots and how they impact your interactions. He says that leaders can be intentional about modelling and reinforcing this behavior2.
With the understanding that this self-awareness would be the key, and further reinforced by the distancing approach that the participants had shown, we looked at getting the participants to become aware of the possible biases they might be holding, as the next step of the workshop.
A quick and fun exercise on association followed by a guided visualization opened up the participants gently to certain biases they might be implicitly carrying. The discussions post these exercises revealed a subtle shift from where we started the session. Many of the participants now spoke about how certain images and associations were so strong within them that it inadvertently came up during these exercises.
This brings up the intriguing point about how organizations could perhaps have systemic frameworks – like periodic trainings, open forums of dialogue – that enable the workforce, particularly leaders, to pause and reflect. Just as we observed in our discussions post the initial exercises, a moment to pause and reflect back on one’s own thinking can be a subtle but effective nudge to being more self-aware about one’s own unconscious biases. It would definitely be most helpful for the organizations to invest in this as they would have a lot to gain. ‘The impact that unconscious biases could have at workplaces is quite significant. Unconscious bias is something we are often unaware of but which creates barriers that prevent diversity and inclusion in the workplace, damaging relationships that could foster creative and innovative ideas. The costs to the business can be significant in terms of missing out on potential talent, an inability to assess certain risks or make the most ethical decisions about change – or even missing out on opportunities to exploit new markets effectively’3.
The Power of Diverse Views
As we progressed more in the workshop exploring some of the more common types of unconscious biases, through different role play scenarios and experiential exercises, that could arise in the workplace4, there was a moment that seemed to tip the collective awareness of the group. It occurred during the discussion on gender related biases, when the lone female participant of the group strongly expressed how she resonated with this and how situations similar to this play out time and again. She spoke about instances where she experienced the unconscious gender bias. She also mentioned that this would play out at senior levels and while she would feel deep angst about it, she had never ventured to speak out openly about it. She said that this workshop was providing her a safe space to openly express this because here she can keep the anonymity of the people involved. This uninhibited opening up of the female participant hit the nail on the head and pointed out the core of the larger issue. It spoke about how such prejudices are commonly prevalent and yet, many are unaware of it or fail to notice it as in this instance until it was pointed out in a stark manner or needed a safe space for a person to talk about it. This again re-emphasises the point made earlier in this essay about the need for spaces in organizations that allow people to reflect, open up and absorb the learning on the different biases that might be at play in their environment.
This deep personal revelation from one participant seemed to bring about an overall shift in the pulse of the group with participants reflecting deeper about this and other unconscious biases, their experiences with them and moments when their actions might have been influenced by their implicit biases. This also highlighted the power of having more diversity not just in such workshops and trainings on unconscious biases, but also at all organization levels. The varied perspectives that can come up by having diversity – of gender, educational & cultural backgrounds, age, region, religion, and more – at the workplace and how that can contribute to innovation has gained a lot of prominence of late. The role that unconscious bias plays in enabling or hampering diversity is quite pertinent. Leaders can play a key role in setting the tone in this regard.
From Awareness to Actioning
Simply respecting diverse members, however, is not enough. Unconscious bias frequently prevents team members from being truly open to the ideas and perspectives of others5.
As the discussions progressed into the different scenarios that the leaders have been part of and/or have been witness to, we used certain Applied theatre-based activities to encourage the participants to not just be aware of differences but to welcome the diverse ideas that could emerge from this multiplicity. Being open to these diverse ideas and thoughts and then building on them would be a wonderful way to feed innovation while building an inclusive organizational culture.
We ended the workshop with another exercise of visualisation. As the leaders reflected post this activity, about what came up for them, there was a definite shift seen towards being more aware of staying away from pre-conditioned ideas and images. This was very encouraging.
The leaders themselves spoke about this conscious shift and how they pushed themselves to break patterns in their thinking. They agreed on the need to be very alert of their actions and decisions stemming from their biases. There was also a recognition of the fact that, triggered by the example of the female participant, they need to safeguard against the risk of perhaps being ignorant. There was an interesting and important point raised about how, as leaders, it was not just enough to only be self-aware but also to be ‘seen’ to be aware, so that it sets an example for people at junior levels.
Some of the senior leaders pointed out how this workshop, with its focus being on an experiential exploration of the topic, was a very unique and effective way of approaching the subject in comparison to the other sessions that they had attended earlier on the same.
As we wound up, we couldn’t help but be more convinced of the need for organizations to address unconscious bias across different levels and particularly at the leadership level, in the path towards greater diversity and inclusion.
- The Kerwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. State of Science: Implicit Bias Review, 2014. Link
- Jim Barnett. Forbes: The Role Of Leadership In Addressing Bias In The Workplace, 2018. Link
- Camilla Pennington. TalentTalks: Is unconscious bias compromising diversity and inclusion in the workplace? 2020. Link
- The HR Source: 5 Types of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, 2018. Link
- Adam Moore. Corridor Business Journal: How Unconscious Bias Impacts Decision Making, 2018. Link