Category Archives: Organizational Culture

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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Together We Remember

Considering Common Memory Spaces

Memorial Day 2020

Usually Memorial Day unofficially kicks off of summer with picnics, beaches and parades. Covid-19 restrictions will likely make this Memorial Day a bit more muted and reflective. That might be a good thing. Taking time to remember together is healthy for a culture.

Reflectively, Memorial Day is our most sober National Holiday. We set it aside to honor and recognize the men and women who’ve died in military service to protect our freedom. Such great sacrifice is worthy of a national day of remembrance and honor. 

On Memorial Day, we look backward on fallen heroes to express our shared gratitude, values and vision. Memorial Day isn’t only for those families who’ve lost loved ones. It’s a common memory space, a day when we remember the cost of freedom together. Common memory spaces are valuable because they unite us, reinforce our values and give us direction as we face new challenges. 

Common memory spaces aren’t only for nations. They are for any group—friends, families, religions and companies. Recognizing and positively cultivating our common memory spaces can also help infuse an organization’s communication and culture with those specific touch points that make the organization unique. 

Memory and the Organization

Organizational memory is like an individual’s memory. It happens organically; it must also be created and nurtured to be useful. Left to its own devices, shared memory will shape the organization in unintended and often undesirable ways. 

Organizational memory is also unlike an individual’s memory. It’s shared collectively (though not universally) by the organization. Organizational memory is formed through experiences, but those experiences aren’t equally distributed. What helps one person may hurt another. And many people weren’t even part of the organization when the memory was formed. 

This is most visible when new people enter an organization. We’ve all experienced coworkers who wax nostalgically for “the way things use to be (before you arrived).” New arrivals may stumble across taboo subjects, or off-limit ideas and initiatives, based on lingering memories of past failures. It isn’t all negative. Best practices are often memories that have been transformed into effective actions. And the new business that a company pursues is driven by a collective memory of what has worked up to this point.

Organizational memory is potent. These collective memories are sticky and they direct our actions. They’re always shaping our experience, even if we aren’t always aware of it.

Short-Term Memory 

Short-term memory gets a lot of attention in most organizations. It’s almost invisible, yet critical to day-to-day functions. If our short-term memory were to malfunction so would we, and our organizations would cease working. Much of our business technology (from sticky notes, to file cabinets, to the cloud) is there to augment short-term memory. We tend a lot to short-term memory, sometimes neglecting the lessons that it is providing. 

There is a trap in short-term memory. It’s critical to the moment, but not much more. Beyond addressing the immediate need, short-term memory can’t decide what’s most important. It can help us achieve, but not prioritize. To be predictive and proactive, we must know where we’ve been and what happened. That is a more complicated calculation than simply accessing the data. It involves reconciling data to long term outcomes and goals. 

Backward-Looking Memory

Looking backward can seem like a waste of time. Consider these bits of well-worn wisdom against spending time in the past:

  • Don’t dwell on the past.
  • It’s water under a bridge.
  • You can’t go back and change things.
  • Don’t look back; you’ll miss what’s in front of you. 

Naturally surfacing, backward-looking memory can take on the dark hues of rumination and nostalgia. This makes sense. The strongest memories often result from trauma. Trauma is a great teacher; one seldom touches fire twice. Focusing on some past pain point can create fear and paralysis. 

The past teaches, but the best lesson isn’t always the one that’s learned. Left uninterpreted, organizational memory can often be tainted by bad events and difficult times. Failed restructuring, mergers that led to drastic layoffs, and other traumas can linger in the collective memory. These can negatively affect employees. Actions and attitudes, with no basis in the present or the future, can weigh an organization down.

Unfortunately, the sticky residue of bad memories is often unrecognized. Therefore, it is difficult to root out and address them. A better option is to be strategic about creating memory spaces that are inherently positive and proactive. 

Strategic Memory

American culture in general, and business in particular, prefers to be forward thinking. Many call that optimism, though there is a distinction between boundless positivity and optimistic realism. An effective optimist doesn’t just look forward. She also reexamines the past to cull the good from the bad. She conducts a reckoning to move forward unencumbered by the past and hopeful about the future. 

Looking only forward actually creates a blind spot leading to bad expectations, decisions and unease among those who’ve been burned before. What we need is a plan to remember and frame what’s important—bring the best of the past to the present as a window on the future. 

Positive, proactive memory is strategic. It requires thought and work. A group of individuals don’t automatically become of one mind. Ideas must be articulated to win collective agreement. It takes leadership and communication to introduce and maintain a good memory space. 

It also takes an honest evaluation of where the organization has been, the good and the bad, to be believed about the future. If an organization attempted a new venture and failed, owning that mistake is critical to sharing the important lessons learned. Simply changing leadership and brushing the mistake under the rug doesn’t instill confidence for the future. 

Strategic leadership builds common memory spaces that can contain the organization’s ups and downs. “We are bold and innovative, and sometimes we get it wrong.” “We are competitive survivors; that means we had to restructure.” The past isn’t ignored. The past is reconciled to an organization’s values system—one that includes successes, failures and commitment to forward vision. I see this at work in Memorial Day. 

A Healing Memory Space

Memorial Day is a strategically created common memory space. It was not formally a National Holiday until 1971. When it was created, it merged separate traditions in the North and the South that emerged after the Civil War—now honoring all those who died in service from the Civil War forward. 

In 1971, the painful memories of the Civil War were significantly past, and the divisive trauma of Vietnam was an open wound. Remember, soldiers returning home from Vietnam were often castigated and reviled publically. Memorial Day helped bridge those two massive chasms, creating a way for all of us to honor those who sacrificed, even when we may be greatly divided politically. It’s worth noting that in the wars fought after creating Memorial Day, including the unpopular Iraq War, soldiers have been honored and treated with the care and respect deserved.

Memorial Day reconciles the past to the present, but also it paves the way forward by reminding us of our shared values, shared sacrifice and shared vision—many died to preserve American freedom. What then should we do?

Together we remember.
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What is home?

A shelter-in-place rethink

The government mandate to “Stay-at-Home” makes me jealous of people who have their in-laws in their home community. Even dysfunctional, disagreeable or outright weird family members can be a huge support in times of crisis. I feel this poignantly because my nearest relative is more than 350 miles away.

I’m from so many states I’m not sure which one is home. It’s made me think a lot about what makes a place home. Many people say home is where their spouse and/or children are. Others describe home as the place where they grew up—where their roots are. Some people say they’ve found a “career home,” a “church home” or even “home away from home.”

For me, Spanish moss and Cajun-French culture bring my mind home to Southern Louisiana, in the same way that winding streets full of traffic and all things “peach” bring me home to Georgia. But I no longer live in either state. Fond memories are certainly pieces of the puzzle. What is it that completes the picture of home for you?

Ultimately, I think home is where you find people who “get” you—the ones who’ll go out of their way to bring you your favorite brand of chips and salsa after they’ve made a TP run during a quarantine. These people might be relatives, or they might be friends, but we tend to think of them as family. Love your job? I’ll bet you’ve referred to your colleagues as “work family.”

“Home” is a place where you understand and respect the culture and traditions that you share with those around you. Home might be something you sense immediately, or it might be something you grow into over time. Home inspires you to invest your passions to make it a better place, even as you love it just as it is. And sometimes, it means choosing to “adopt” things that you might never have even considered important. 

When our new neighbors came over to welcome us shortly after we moved into our current house, they asked whether I would root for Tennessee (our most recent home state) or Kentucky in state university athletic competitions. “Well, I like blue better than orange, so I guess I’ll support Kentucky,” I replied, unwittingly denigrating the hallowed courts of the Big Blue Nation. There was an awkward silence as they searched for a response. I don’t think our die-hard wildcat neighbors had ever encountered someone for whom basketball wasn’t sacred! (Fortunately for me, I’ve found a few people in our new ZIP code who are sports-ambivalent …)

What is it that first prompts a person to connect with authenticity and then continue a dynamic relationship with others that involves the things that are most important? I think it could be summed up to shared values conveyed through mutual respect, revealed via genuine communication. It’s the sharing of values and ideas through communication that helps us find our way home.

Learning about others, recognizing what’s important and adapting to your environment are key factors in creating a connection that can grow into a bond, if fostered within a healthy environment. You can’t do that without effective communication, and this doesn’t necessarily require a shared dialect. Remember that a smile is a universal language.  

How we communicate—articulating our shared values and relating to each other—is key to capturing the minds and hearts of the people around us. Sometimes, like children who find they have shared interests on a playground, this happens effortlessly. At other times it requires discipline and conscientious effort. It’s why we’re told to “Think before you speak,” and that “Honesty is the best policy.” It’s also why successful business leaders carefully plan their communication strategies—before, during and after a time of unforeseen events.

Happily, I’ve landed in a career home that values both collaboration and individuality—the supreme yin and yang of professional development. My Smith “family” is full of expert communicators who selflessly share their knowledge within our team, while encouraging each person to apply his or her unique perspective to creatively help our clients reach their goals. There’s no single “right way” to solve a problem. Excellence is the tie that binds us. 

Is it possible for you to find a “consulting home?” I might be a little biased, but my experience has been that the people at Smith truly set us apart. While you may be restricted to buying only two gallons of milk right now, the good news is that there’s no ration on creative solutions—no “social distancing” necessary in helping one another succeed. So, I’d say, yeah; I think that’s possible.

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@home with Smith

Our remote working hacks

Smith’s beautiful lounge area is very quiet these days. To maximize social distancing we only have one person in the office each day. It’s a sad (hopefully brief) new reality. Fortunately, Smith’s ability to serve our clients has not being disrupted at all.

Since our inception in 2005, every Smith employee has been set up to work remotely. Some of us do it all of the time. Some of us choose a hybrid model, where we both go to an office and work from home. 

We know a lot of you have been thrust into working from home and you’re figuring things out. Over the years we’ve learned a few tricks. Here are a some tips that might help you navigate this stressful time, with sanity, humor and success.

Set the Stage

Jennifer Needham

My grandfather was a professor of theology who often worked from home and sometimes conducted classes in his home office. The office had two doors. His eight children — eight! –understood that if the first office door was open, they were allowed to knock on the second office door. If both doors were closed, they were to keep on walking. 

So when we built our house, and I knew I wanted to work from home, I had French doors installed on my office, and tried to teach my twin girls roughly the same system. It worked some of the time. The most notable failure was the time they got into a screaming fight right outside my door while I was on a conference call with a client. I had to go on mute, scramble with my laptop upstairs, and finish the call from the master bathroom with the door locked. 

Sara Levinson

I have a standing desk and try to stand for at least a 1/3 of my day. Helps my back!  

Glen Gonzalez 

Maximize your shared drive. At Smith, we’ve been using Google Drive for a few years. This service lets you access files from any device, online or offline. It makes it easy to collaborate with others (at a distance), retrieve deleted documents and restore earlier versions of documents.

Don Sanford

When I need to laser focus on a topic, I close the door to my office and turn off all electronics.  I have a couple chairs in my office and when I am really busy I put a backpack and a box on them to prevent visitors from sitting down!  Mean … but effective.  🙂

Mary Cohen

My desk faces the window. So my back is to the door into the room. If I don’t turn around, Jay knows not to venture in. Lastly, I’m trying to Marie Kondo my desk so it won’t look overwhelming in the morning.

Gina Walker

I work in different areas of the house to change up the scenery. Helps with my creativity. If it’s nice out, I work on the front or back porch, or on the deck. I’m typically home alone. But if someone is home with me and I can’t be bothered, I lock myself in my office. 

If there’s a storm coming, I work while my laptop is plugged in. If I lose power, I can continue to work with a full charge. Best to do this on a surge protector. 

I also never answer the front door during my work hours. It sets a standard for neighbors, friends and/or solicitors that I don’t want to be bothered. Those that really need/want something would text first. 

Pat Dodd

At the end of each day, I aspire (don’t always succeed) to straighten my desk and make a to-do list for the next day, including work and personal items. This way, I walk into the office the next morning and can immediately begin work.

Rick Cole

My wife and I both work from home. We placed our offices on opposite ends of the home—cuts out noise and distraction. Another thing we do is hang a hotel’s “privacy” sign on our door when we can’t be interrupted. 

Create Healthy Habits

Allison Artnak

A couple of years ago, Allison gave everyone “Dammit Dolls” for Christmas. They come in handy sometimes. Make a little room for frustration. It’s going to happen and it isn’t the end of the world.

You’re gonna need this.

Mary Cohen

I try (emphasis on the try) to maintain a normal eating schedule. In other words a regular lunch and not snack every hour. 

I don’t know if others struggle with this but because I am home, people will call wanting to “ask a quick question” or come into my office “to visit.” That just irritates me to no end!

Trey Wood

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been wearing a smart watch that, among other things, reminds me to pause my work and walk for just a couple of minutes each hour. Inevitably, when at the office, I often find it difficult to break away from my work at hand. However, when working from home, I have numerous more interesting quick destinations available to me — our mailbox, our garden, our bird feeder, etc. — that make taking 2-5 minute health breaks more inviting during my day. 

Pat Dodd

I am in a rather unique situation. Last year, I moved to an active adult community, age 55+. This is important for two primary reasons:

Most of my neighbors are in the danger zone, age-wise if not health wise. So, we are having parties in the street in the early afternoon, remaining safely distant from each other, to sing happy birthday to our friends … including champagne toasts. Later this evening, we are having a block party … from our driveways, wishing passers-by well from a distance, and air-toasting each other with beverages of choice. 

Sara Levinson 

Our yard has never looked better — and is free of doggie presents. With compulsory outdoor time every day…we have picked up all the sticks, raked all the leaves, planted 300+ bulbs that were sitting in the mudroom for the last year (but will they grow?!), uncovered an old brick path, and last — but certainly not least — for the first time ever picked up dog droppings every single day. 

Add Children and Stir

Gretchen Vaught

Mothers of a bygone era taught their children to identify plants that would help them survive in the wild, if necessary. This knowledge has been largely undervalued in recent times, but my mother did convey one key piece of wisdom that I’m especially glad I follow. She said, “Toilet paper will never go to waste,” so I’ve always kept a case on hand!

Jennifer Needham

Summers working from home with little kids were always the most challenging. One idea that worked well was rolling a bar cart outside of my office door and filling it with crafts and games. When they wandered in my office to say they were bored, I could point them back out to the cart.

Catherine Sturges

Now that my kids are going to school from home and husband is working from home, it has been a learning period for all of us. Most of the time, we are all on separate calls, in separate areas of the house. I mostly stay on mute when I am not speaking, but have had to exercise strategic use of the mute button to help with interruptions. 

My daughter figured this out the hard way during one of her virtual classroom sessions. She was talking and accidentally stepped on a Santa Claus stuffed doll and it began playing Christmas music. She apologized for the disruption in the chat feature of her Google Meet call. A classmate responded in the chat, “Why do you still have your Christmas toys out?” Which raises a good question.

Amy Crowell

From my children’s online class meetings to ducking under the camera as I walk by Jeff’s Zoom calls, everyone in my house is becoming more comfortable with video conferencing. This is something many have resisted but can truly be uplifting, motivating, sanity saving in times of isolation. While there are many tips about how to feel better about being on video from using your app’s preview feature to inserting custom backgrounds as on Zoom, the bottom line is the more you do it the more comfortable you become.

Also blackjack with candy is good for math fluency.

She’s counting cards!

Gina Walker

My workday has changed now that I have my 7 year old who needs constant help with her schoolwork and is hungry every hour. We are both out of routine and trapped indoors which has caused us a lot of frustration. I sent her outside in the backyard to get fresh air in which she said, “That’s boring” and sat on the deck with her arms crossed pouting. I was forced to go outside and help her think outside the box. We explored areas of the yard we haven’t before, looked at new sprouting plants and blooms…along with many weeds. We collected sticks and looked under rocks, logs and plants for bugs. She even found a cocoon! As we went back indoors, she said, “That was FUN!” That fresh air really changed our moods!

Pat Dodd

I downsized into a two-bedroom home when I moved here. Shortly thereafter, my son and his wife moved in to live with me while their new home is being built. So, my daughter-in-law has all her computer equipment in the dining room, my son is floating from their room to my room to the living room with his laptop and phone, and I am primarily in my office. I am enjoying having them here, and we are having fun cooking, etc. My daughter-in-law is a gourmet cook so I am learning from her, and I am a “Southern” cook so we have a variety.

Pet Sounds 

Norine Cannon 

Before getting on conference calls I’ve learned to check on our dog, Charlie, to make sure he’s occupied and happy. Otherwise, invariably, he contributes his thoughts to the discussion!

Rick Cole

We use to freak out whenever the dog barked. Now, even before the coronavirus crisis, it isn’t so much an issue because so many people work remotely.

Gina Walker

Like Norine, I make sure the cat is happy. She has walked in on me during a conference call screaming that her food bowl is empty. Another reason to lock the office door. 

I’m here for you.

Michael Garcia

I’ve heard it said that 2020 will be the worst year many of us have ever experienced. If you’re a dog, though, these are the best of times. My dog, Trooper, is loving a full house of people ALL day EVERY day; not to mention the seemingly constant parade of walkers (and other dogs) strolling past our house. He’s never received, nor given, more attention.

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