Micro-Aggressions, Macro Problems: It Takes Courageous Conversations to Tackle Unconscious Bias
Though the meeting happened years ago, I still remember who else was there: five white men, three white women and one Asian man. But being one of only two people of color in attendance didn't make me uncomfortable -- something else did.
Just before the meeting began, the five white men all chatted about golf. They compared notes on their latest weekend outings and marveled at how "fast" the greens were at a local course. By the time the talk switched to the business of the day, a certain pecking order had been established. The golfers were the "in" group: they talked the most and seemingly shared the best ideas since sliced bread. The rest of us were reduced to the roles of spectators.
If you're a woman, a person of color, or any other traditionally marginalized group, chances are you've experienced something similar: a situation that left you feeling as though your contributions weren't valued or welcome because your identity or background was fairly different than those around you. Sometimes such situations occur when a colleague or superior commits what's known as a micro-aggression: a casual remark that, however unintentionally, reveals unconscious bias or prejudice. Pinar Kip, State Street's head of Global Strategic Operations, remembers how, at a previous employer, a senior manager inquired about her summer plans. When she shared that she'd be traveling to Turkey, he responded: "I don't know why you newbies always pick these exotic, odd places. I never would." But Turkey wasn't "exotic" or "odd" to Pinar -- that's where she was born and where her parents live.
How can everyone on a team talk in equal measure if some are being marginalized by their peers?
When micro-aggressions or other forms of exclusion happen in the workplace, it's not just bad for the individuals involved -- it's bad for business. Study after study has found that success often depends on effective teamwork. Research by MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory, for instance, found that the best teams are those in which "[e]veryone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure," as MIT's Alex Pentland wrote in Harvard Business Review.1 But how can everyone on a team talk in equal measure if some are being marginalized, whether consciously or unconsciously, by their peers?
It's clear that though businesses are making progress in emphasizing diversity in their hiring and promotion practices, true inclusion -- the kind that can't be measured by headcounts -- remains a challenge. So how do we address it? Fortunately, the solution starts with something simple: communication or, as I like to call it, "courageous conversations." In 2015, State Street began conducting a series of discussions called "Dig Deep." The idea came from our Leading Women group, a cohort of top female executives at State Street. One, a woman of color, suggested that many of State Street's employees don't truly understand how it feels to be a person of color (POC) working here. She and another woman planned sessions to help raise awareness of the POC experience, with more than 60 "teachers" -- people with diverse backgrounds working at State Street -- and more than 70 "learners." The discussions, though at times difficult, proved eye-opening for all involved -- so much so that we continued the sessions the following year.
The sessions included participation by State Street's senior leadership because we know that at large organizations like ours, change often comes from the top. The more leaders become aware of diversity issues, including micro-aggressions and unconscious biases, the better equipped they will be to foster inclusion and more effectively lead diverse teams. But we're not just encouraging our leaders to promote inclusion -- we're holding them accountable for it. We recently implemented leadership scorecards -- a set of metrics we're using to evaluate some of State Street's most senior executives on traits such as listening and encouraging debate. The scorecards are largely based on employee surveys, which include questions about diversity and inclusion. If the scorecards ultimately highlight areas of weakness in our organization, we'll work to address them with training and, yes, more courageous conversations. These also include metrics around our workforce movements comparing how effectively we are attracting, promoting or exiting diverse talent as compared to their counterparts in order to meet our diversity goals.
Courageous workplace conversations aren't unique to State Street. Recently, State Street CEO Jay Hooley joined dozens of other CEOs from major corporations to sign the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge, a commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Key to that commitment is ensuring that all our workplaces have forums where employees "feel comfortable reaching out to their colleagues to gain greater awareness of each other’s experiences and perspectives." Another tenet is cooperation among the pledge's signatories. In the coming months and years, we're going to discuss our efforts and share what's worked and what hasn't. We'll learn from each other and, we hope, encourage even more corporations to join us along the way. This is one "in" group to which everyone is invited because fostering inclusion is no spectator sport.
1. Pentland, A.., & Anita Woolley and Thomas W. Malone. (2015, July 15). The New Science of Building Great Teams.
Retrieved August 02, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams
Paul is the Chief Diversity Officer and Head of Workforce Development Programs at State Street Corporation. He leads the implementation of State Street’s global diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. Recently, Paul was appointed by Massachusetts Governor, Charlie Baker, to serve on the Black Advisory Board Commission.