All posts by Glen Gonzalez

About Glen Gonzalez

Glen is a Partner and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Breaking Bias

Helping employees recognize and mitigate unconscious bias.

In 2019, a client sought Smith’s help in rolling out an unconscious bias workshop they had purchased from the NeuroLeadership Institute. (It’s a powerful and practical course and worth looking into.) Our job was to adapt materials to the client’s brand, promote the course and reinforce key learnings over time. In this post are some of the tips and insights we took away from that experience.

We’re Fighting an Unseen Adversary

Unconscious bias is just what it sounds like — bias that affects our decision making but is outside of our awareness. A key challenge was getting employees to realize unconscious bias is real and has real-world implications. In the workplace, these biases affect how we hire, assess talent, allocate development opportunities, staff projects, prioritize our time, and much more. 

Following are some examples we used in our communications to facilitate this realization among employees. Each highlights a different type of unconscious bias, making it easier to discuss and tackle it.

The YouTube Example

When YouTube launched its video upload app for iOS, nearly 10% of the videos uploaded by users were upside-down. The problem, though, wasn’t users; it was the app’s developers. The design team was almost exclusively right-handed and they created an app that worked best for themselves. They didn’t consider that, when held in the left hand, the phone’s screen would rotate 180 degrees. 

The Guardian Commercial

Above is a television commercial for The Guardian. Every time the video dips to black, hit pause, ask yourself what you think is happening or about to happen, and then resume playback. Watch it through to the end and consider what you got right or wrong and why. For best effect, keep the video muted. 

Two People on a Park Bench

Look at the photograph below and take 30 seconds to describe what you think is happening.

What is going on here?

Got it?

No matter what story you came up with, you did so with no information or context. Your brain filled in the gaps with your own world views and experience, and it did so almost immediately.  

Knowing Is Only Half the Battle

Unconscious biases are mental shortcuts. They can cause us to discount or ignore certain kinds of information while relying too heavily on others. To understand how powerful unconscious bias can be, consider this. The processing abilities of the unconscious mind are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. In comparison, the conscious mind can process about 40 pieces per second. This is why it’s so important to first help employees recognize that unconscious bias exists and then give them tools and techniques to fight its grip on their decision making. Combining communication with workshops, guidelines, policies and other tactics is essential.

Personal Realization Is Key

Take a look at the image below. 

Did you spot the hidden baby?

Recognizing unconscious bias in ourselves is a little like finding the baby in that picture. To really deal with unconscious bias, you have to see it for yourself, but simply telling you it’s there isn’t always enough. That’s why our communication strategy for this client, sought first to do this:

With some thoughtful creativity, we can help our colleagues, our friends and our neighbors break our unconscious biases so we can work toward real change in our organizations — and in our world — with every decision every day. 

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Are your employees ready for the new normal at work?

A survey of employees’ covid-19 concerns could help you plan a smoother transition.

Political and business leaders are starting to talk about reopening the country for business. But, after months of being told to stay home and keep our distance from each other, how comfortable will we be re-entering the workplace? Will resuming more normal business operations be as simple as unlocking the doors and flipping a switch?

What concerns will your workforce have? Will they be eager to come back to work or reluctant? Should temporary changes to your work-from-home policies be made permanent? What previously overlooked benefits helped employees cope? 

A survey of your workforce could give you actual data to use in your decision making, leading to more effective outcomes and greater performance. 

“Surveys really have a dual benefit for organizations,” said Aaron Van Groningen, senior organizational development and training consultant at Hicks-Carter-Hicks, LLC, a boutique firm that specializes in using surveys and assessments to help organizations enhance performance. “First, direct feedback from employees allows decisions to be made using data rather than guesses and hunches. Second, surveys communicate to employees that their opinions are valuable and important to the organization, which is positively associated with organizational commitment.”

Should You Conduct a Survey?

By replacing guesswork with data, surveys can help organizations use their time, energy and money more efficiently. And who doesn’t want that right now? 

However, if your organization is not likely to heed the results of a survey, don’t do it. Asking your employees for their input and then appearing to ignore or disregard it could have a serious impact on their trust in the organization and their engagement.

What Should You Ask?

When crafting questions, consider how your organization responded to the pandemic and how your workers and workplaces were affected. Avoid infringing on employees’ privacy; steer clear of specific questions regarding personal health or circumstances. Also avoid asking employees to make comments they think will jeopardize their jobs, careers or income.

For some ideas, check out our brief “Return to Work” survey sample. Feel free to complete the survey or just peruse the questions.

If an employee survey is already part of your post-covid-19 return-to-work strategy, or if you’re looking for help designing and/or administering a survey, we’d love to hear from you.

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Phoenix in Waiting

Reflecting on what’s changed and what hasn’t during the COVID-19 pandemic

Last year, some friends of mine opened a craft restaurant and brewery. They do a great job at both kitchen and keg, and things were going well. As you might expect, their business changed dramatically and suddenly due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. But some things didn’t change. They still make great food and beer (you just have to pick it up and take it home), and they still have an engaging presence on social media. 

A week ago, we here at Smith had made it to the finalist stage of a significant RFP opportunity, and we were planning to do our last presentation in person. Of course, we had to switch to conducting that meeting virtually. We do virtual meetings and pitches all the time, so this wasn’t a big deal. The venue wasn’t what we planned for, but our core messages and ideas were the same. 

When I call a colleague to discuss a project or do some brainstorming, the same spirit of cooperation is still there. The same energy. The same commitment to quality. 

When I walk to my office each morning (don’t worry, it’s just me in my office and it’s a short walk through my neighborhood), I see neighbors have begun placing rainbows in their windows. Some neighborhood kids have been leaving chalk drawings in driveways and hiding small painted stones along the sidewalks. My typical suburban neighborhood now sparkles with art and whimsy. Who knew?

Some apparel companies have adapted to our new work-from-home reality with the “new business causal.” 

All this got me thinking. While the broad-based slamming on of the economic brakes is up-ending businesses and people’s lives, it’s worth taking a moment to ponder not only what needs to change but also what hasn’t changed and what new things are only now being revealed.

I’m not typically one to race for the silver lining, at least not without first acknowledging what the dark clouds portend, but it would be a mistake not take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.

While our current situation is not tenable for every business and certainly not for every individual, we do have a chance to learn something about ourselves, our employees, and our organizations. 

What about your organization — what tools, skills, practices, and behaviors — proved themselves to be immediately obsolete in the face of this change? Which ones have proved to be indispensable? 

What new things have you had to learn? What old habits had to be broken?

If the world were suddenly back to normal, what discarded things would you welcome back and what would you leave behind forever?

This is more than a thought experiment. While the world certainly can’t continue in a state of “extreme mitigation” forever, it’s not likely that everything will fit neatly back into place. Not only are communication infrastructures being put to the test, so are the brand identities, values, missions, and visions that flow through them.

This is a chance to reflect on what you thought made your organization a successful business and a great place to work, and on what makes it so in the absence of whatever “business as usual” is for you. If nothing else, it’s a test of what will help you and your organization endure the next crisis. It would be worthwhile to jot these ideas down and reconsider what the true soul of your organization is and how it’s communicated moving forward.

Though usually in not such dramatic fashion, the world is always changing. It’s reassuring to see people meet challenges head on with grit, creativity, and flexibility. While we may inevitably pause in shock when a calamity confronts us, I’d like to think we’re really just working out how we’re each going to rise from the ash.

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