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‘I Don’t Understand’ – Words That Can Build an Inclusive Collaborative Culture

‘I Don’t Understand’ – Words That Can Build an Inclusive Collaborative Culture

May 2, 2024
How to communicate to create a psychologically safe environment.

Unbeknownst to both employers and employees there are many lenses through which they view each other. And these lenses often block inclusion which in turn blocks talent growth.  

Perceptions obstruct an essential goal of an organization which is to optimize its most valuable resource – talent. In order to push aside these limiting viewpoints, the root cause must be uncovered, and more importantly corrected.

Buki Mosaku, an international expert on effective communication and workplace bias and founder of DiverseCity Think Tank, who has worked with companies such as Shell,  Roche, and JP Morgan employs an unusual approach.

“The predominant strategy of placing the onus of correcting these viewpoints, or unconscious bias, on leadership is misplaced,” says Mosaku. “The bias goes both ways. But the crucial point is that there are skills everyone can use to navigate this bias that can help all of us get out of own way.”

The current narrative is based on guilt and pain associated with these biases, once uncovered, but that’s not helpful, notes Mosaku. “How can anyone tap into their creativity, when they are bringing to work this heavy load of past injustices? And let’s not forget that your colleagues and leadership were not the cause of these injustices.”

What might not be so obvious is how this affects career growth. “The issue of bias is not just about feeling uncomfortable in the workplace, it’s about a person’s opportunities to move forward in an organization.”

One of the keystones to a successful career is being able to work in a psychologically safe space. When an employee does not have the burden of bias, and feels psychologically safe, they are able to contribute at an optimal level.

Mosaku explains that if bias is not understood, called out and corrected it can prevent employees, mostly from diverse backgrounds, from having successful careers at the company while preventing the company from receiving the competitive edge it might otherwise have.

The variety of viewpoints based on different backgrounds creates a more innovative culture. Variety is a solid business principle. Mosaku points out the example of a company's supply chain. Successful companies have suppliers that vary in size, location and ability and it’s this mix that creates not only a more stable supply chain but provides business advantages as competition among suppliers leads to better service, prices and often new ideas.  

Bias is a Two-Way Street

Dealing with the root cause of bias is first understanding that bias is a two-way street. “An employee can have as much bias toward a manager as the manager has toward the employee,” says Mosaku. 

The two types of bias are directional and reverse. Directional is what you feel is aimed at your race, religion, gender, etc. While reverse is your bias in how you interpret what is happening. While most people understand directional bias, reverse bias is a little more difficult. An example Mosaku likes to give is when someone asks about your ethnic origin. Most people would feel that comment hints at directional bias but what if it was just a misinterpretation and the person was just truly interested in where you were from?

A construct to view the bias is to categorize it two ways -- simple or complex.

Simple bias consists of social slights, also called microaggressions, that when piled on over time can become debilitating. “We don’t do anything about these slights, but it affects our well-being and stifles our work,” says Mosaku. “We have to call it out. But the problem is that no one wants to have these conversations. And they don’t know how to have this discussion. So, tension is kept in and causes more problems.”

Mosaku gives people the tools to do just this. His approach is to 1) Give People the Benefit of Doubt, 2) Light Reconditioning and 3) Move on. So, if someone says something you find offensive, rethink it, and reframe it to give the person the benefit of the doubt. They might not realize what they said. Light reconditioning is to call them out. Simply ask them why they made this comment. And then move on.

This needs to be done immediately when the comment was made. “We need to equip and empower people to deal with the bias. Just stop someone in their track and address it.”

Mosaku understands that this is challenging especially as the current corporate pattern is focusing on a solution that calls for the establishment to change themselves and interrupt what Mosaku calls their original sin. “This doesn’t work. What we need to do is call out the bias to each other and neutralize the problem.” 

Complex bias goes beyond an individual and is systemic. It’s how the corporate culture evaluates opportunities with baked in bias often present. An example would be someone being denied a promotion but there aren’t any specific metrics that can explain why. The reason is often based on an overall culture that determines who gets promoted and why. Dealing with this is similar to a simple bias situation but with important tactics that address the larger issues.

1)  Set your mindset. – Leave your understandable baggage at the door. You can’t bring in societal injustice into the workplace.

2)  Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

3)  Say this crucial statement to engage in dispassionate development inquiry. “I don’t understand.”

This statement, says Mosaku, opens up a conversation where bias calls itself out. “It can show bias toward you, or it can reveal your own bias. In either case it’s how to move forward and get past bias to a meaningful place where everyone is freed up to bring their talent to the job at hand.” The power of this statement, and this methodology, is spelled out in detail in his recent book, “I Don’t Understand. Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace".

The results of opening a dialog which can allow everyone to move past beliefs that block productivity are substantial. Lower productivity can be viewed a number of ways. One measurement is engagement. A survey from the Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) found that employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work and also three times as likely to say that they plan to leave their current job within the year.   

Another measurement of productivity is the level of innovation an employee shows. In that Coqual survey, those who perceive bias are 2.6 times more likely to say that they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions over the previous six months.

However, these issues can be corrected, says Mosaku. One tool he provides on his webite is a bias compass, which includes a bias navigation test.

When an organization provides navigation skills to address, and eventually works through bias, it can mitigate those pulls on productivity and retention. And that has a business payoff. Mosaku cites the following surveys:

  • Companies with more gender diversity in their top teams are more profitable than average, according to a McKinsey study. 
  • A medium-sized firm who appoints a Black executive will experience a 3.1% increase in market capitalization within three days of an announcement, according to Nasdaq.
  • Despite representing less than 10% of the population, Asian Americans contributed $1.5 trillion current dollars to the growth of gross domestic product, according to Goldman Sachs.

With a large business payoff in terms of the above- mentioned statistics, building a company into a harmonious unit is worth the effort. “Using the “I Don’t’ Understand’ method is a tool that is not difficult to adapt and creates psychological safety, which has proven to be an important foundation of a successful company.” 

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