The mismatch between knowledge and attitude
Snéha Khilay explains the importance of recognising default thinking and unconscious bias habits and considers the steps managers can take to be effective leaders and role models
Law firms have undergone serious upheavals over recent years on both sides of the Atlantic. Global competition, technology replacing services, and higher expectations from customers are just some of the contributing societal factors that affect firm stability.
A study conducted by Dunn and Bradstreet claims that 88 per cent of firms fail due to poor management and inadequate leadership.
This was confirmed by a study conducted by
the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, which indicated an almost unanimous dissatisfaction with firm leadership among industry professionals. It is widely acknowledged that effective leadership is a feat in itself, to
the extent that some of the world-renowned universities, Cambridge and Harvard included,
now offer intensive courses on business-led management/leadership skills and techniques.
During a recent training session that I was conducting, a colleague shared that he was in the process of buying some tiles for his new kitchen
and wanted to make sure that he had the right colours and size to match the kitchen decor.
Another participant queried what his wife would think about the colours he had chosen, to which my colleague responded that his husband would prefer a different colour. An awkward silence ensued.
Reflecting on this incident, I wondered whether our default thinking is such that we perceive people to be mirror images of our world and its reality. Alternatively, within an organisational perspective, whenever I have mentioned that I am working with a chair of board members, the response I usually get is 'what is he like?', the emphasis being that the chair is presumed to be a man.
While there is no malice behind these well-intended questions, these queries are in essence opinions, a filtering process, cultivated over a period of time. This type of default thinking is seeing and experiencing everything from one frame of reference. It is an automatic, 'most likely' possibility given in a situation with limited consideration to any other alternatives.
Use of language
Consider this famous riddle: A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, 'I can't operate on this boy. He is my son.' Who is the surgeon?
Given that this riddle apparently originated in the 1980s, there continues to be the usual type of responses, such as 'the surgeon was the adopted father' or 'the man who was killed in the accident was the priest'. In most cases, when this question
is asked, the focus seems to on the surgeon being
a man and the default thinking of finding the connection between the 'male' surgeon and the son. Incidentally, the answer is that the surgeon
is the boy's mother.
What is noticeable is the reaction to other possible options: that the son may have two
dads, and adding further consideration, one dad could be of the Muslim faith. I have had on some occasions participants, senior leaders, vehemently state, through their default thinking, that this could not possibly be the case as they do not know any surgeons who are gay, and further they do not know of anyone who is Muslim and gay.
The use of language in our communications, whether written or in conversation, bears the precise imprint of our attitudes, beliefs, and considerations of our subjective 'norms'. This is highlighted further in universal definitions. Michael Oman-Reagan, an anthropologist at Canada's Memorial University of Newfoundland, noted definitions of some words in the Oxford Dictionary of English that had questionable examples of their (sexist) usage.
For instance, 'nagging' was described as 'constantly harassing someone to do something:
a nagging wife' and housework as 'regular work done in housekeeping, especially cleaning and tidying: she still does all the housework'. Other words include 'work as a nurse: she nursed at the hospital for thirty years' - note the female pronouns.
In contrast, an example of the term doctor was given as 'he was made doctor of divinity' and of the term research, 'he prefaces his study with a useful summary of his own researches' - note the male pronouns.
While these examples are demonstrative of
the concept of default thinking, it is the minor details which have longer lasting consequences. Default thinking is not just applicable to gender
or sexuality; it applies to all the protected characteristics and other qualities of the
individual, whether considered relevant or not.
Organisations that had taken into account the
new changes introduced by the Equality Act 2010 subsequently placed a greater emphasis on policies, procedures, and inclusive practices. However, six years on, it has become apparent, from my experience, that some of these organisations have now become complacent with the misguided belief that they do not need to take any further measures regarding diversity and inclusion.
According to the UN: 'Discriminatory behaviour takes many forms but all involve some form of exclusion or rejection.' It is now increasingly apparent that colleagues make choices which subtlety discriminate in favour of, or against, certain characteristics in a person or group. These choices are based at an unconscious level, known as unconscious (implicit) bias or hidden assumptions. King's College London describes unconscious bias as 'the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases
occur automatically, triggered by our brain
making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment, and our experiences.'
Biases are found in situations where individuals have the power to influence outcomes through their decisions and actions. As a result of these unconscious biases, recruitment processes, promotions, allocation of work, performance reviews, and redundancies are not conducted in a fair and consistent manner. The job/promotion/task is given to a preferred person as opposed to the right person. Creativity is not utilised.
Tackling assumptions and acknowledging attitudes is a powerful agent for change. The bridge-building process requires a conscientious responsibility to be aware and a willingness to change one's attitude and the organisation's processes. Acknowledging and addressing unconscious bias is a first step in creating business environments where organisations attract, retain, and nurture the right skills irrespective of any differences, visible or not visible.
We all hold biases and prejudices and these
are manifested in our behaviours towards certain people who look, act, and dress differently to
us. We naturally gravitate towards people with whom we feel safe or who we perceive think like us. These thought patterns, built up over time, become a perceptual scanning process, filtering out certain aspects and allowing key preferences, all based on perceptions and interpretations
During racially diverse training sessions I have often noticed the black participants will most likely sit together on one side of the room and
the white participants on the other. After they have been made aware of the seating situation, participants are usually surprised about the unconscious segregation. These unconscious preferences are hardwired into our brains at a neurological level. The implicit preferences are formed by our social and cultural contexts and experiences. If challenged about these biases, most of us feel uncomfortable that our >> >> behaviours are based on stereotypes and concepts of differences.
Though we should fundamentally value differences and strive to be inclusive, scientific research has demonstrated that biases, although thought to be obsolete or extinguished, remain
as residual debris in most of us. Collaborative research conducted in a number of UK and US universities indicates a link between hidden biases and actual behaviour. Simply put, because prejudices are outside our awareness, the subtle (and negative) behaviours that follow are usually ignored or trivialised.
One of my favourite stories where unconscious bias has been dealt with effectively is in the hiring of musicians for orchestras. Historically there was an unspoken view that certain instruments such as the trombone, cello, and drums were heavy and masculine. It was felt that women did not have the capacity or the stamina to play them
as well as men, and therefore they were not appointed to perform in orchestras. In a move to stop conductors 'choosing favourites', partitions were placed between the musician and the judging committee so all decisions were based solely on what was played and heard, thus avoiding implicit bias towards men. The number of female musicians playing in orchestras has increased as a result.
As The New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell states in his bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: 'The fact that there
are now women playing for symphony orchestras is not a trivial change. It matters because it has opened up a world of possibility for a group that had been locked out of opportunity… orchestras now hire better musicians and better musicians mean better music.'
When the advantages and disadvantages of default thinking are mapped out, it is illustrative of how cyclic and closely connected one outcome can be to another. For example, disadvantages caused to firms by unconscious bias are very
likely to include feelings of mistrust and not
being valued, and the incongruence between
the organisation ethos of inclusivity and the reality of staff and managers being excluded.
This inevitably has a knock-on effect, with low morale, little motivation, limited efficiency,
and fundamentally high staff turnover. This
will have implications for the reputation of the organisation, as well as causing issues around talent management. Simply put, skills, attributes, experience, and knowledge built up over time
will be made use of by competing firms.
This also results in a negative impact on customer care. Partners and staff who do not
feel valued, included, or acknowledged will indiscreetly allude to the negative culture of the organisation with the potential consequence
of clients going elsewhere for their business.
While there is a correlation between a 'problem organisation' and high incidences of unconscious bias at play, a good relationship between the partners, senior partners, and staff is instrumental in maintaining effective working interactions resulting in greater productivity and staff loyalty. Writing on the American Bar website, John Remsen Jr, a leading authority on law firm leadership and CEO of the Managing Partner Forum, states: 'The authority of lawyer management (or leadership) is derived from the willingness of the firm's partners to be managed (or led).' Hence, a well-established and maintained relationship between partners and leaders is liable to result in such willingness, because of
the mutual respect between parties.
Moving away from default thinking is to recognise that each thought or response is the tip of the iceberg. These responses are learned and, as we are often reminded, can take a dramatic collective wrong turn in recent times. While comments of 'I can't help it if I think the chair is a man' are made, the reaction is that this type of thinking is outdated and no longer acceptable.
A tone of judgemental impatience may often creep in.
There is now a giant mismatch between knowledge and attitude. The implication is that those who have not made any attempt to change their thinking are somehow not aware and have not made any effort to keep up with the times. Isaac Asimov, the prolific American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, sums it up rather well: 'Your assumptions are
your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.'