Why it can be Difficult to be Inclusive

Why it can be Difficult to be Inclusive

Why it can be Difficult to be Inclusive

This week is National Inclusion Week.  Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion are top priorities for organizations, many of whom invest in initiatives to try to assist their employees in overcoming unconscious bias.  Unconscious bias can manifest itself as stereotyping, which is how we think about someone who is different to us, prejudice which is how we feel about them, and discrimination involves how we behave towards someone. 

Stereotyping involves having an over-generalized and over-simplified belief or image about a particular category of people and assuming that the stereotype is the same for every individual in the category, for example, all old people drive slowly!  This is a part of socialisation that is often reinforced by the media or comedians.  In order to simplify our thoughts and actions the brain suppresses information and categorises it, in other words, it pigeon-holes people or sorts people into groups. 

Prejudice is a prejudgement or preconceived opinion that is not based on reason and is formed before or without knowledge of the facts.  Prejudice often occurs between groups and is based on real or imagined characteristics.  Negative feelings towards certain groups of people, such as groups of teenagers wearing hoodies, can lead to discrimination.  When a stereotype or prejudice is strong enough it can lead to discriminatory behaviour, such as criticism, jokes, avoidance, or abuse. 

You may be wondering what a giant house spider has to do with being inclusive!  Well, as we look at the science behind some of our negative biases, we find that some of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are referred to as Implicit Associations and they  occur when two ideas are linked in the mind; often they are negative, formed really easily, and irrational, for example, a fear of all spiders as being dangerous.  Of course, although some spiders can injure humans, on the whole, most are relatively harmless. (And for those wondering - yes, this is a real-life one from my house, a result of living in the countryside!  And yes, his legs are almost 3 inches long, and yes, he’s had an accident and is missing one!)

When we start to look at what can be behind our negative biases, we can start to understand why sometimes it can be difficult to be inclusive:  Our attitude is what we think, which can lead to stereotyping, and how we feel, which can lead to prejudice, and both can shape our behaviour.  In the workplace these reactions can all have a major negative impact on recruitment, training, and promotion.  Unfortunately, negative thoughts travel through our brain quicker than positive ones, as a left-over from the necessity of our ancestors to have a fight or flight stress response to danger in order to be able to survive.  This starts to explain the origins of unconscious bias.

Implicit Association theories are attitudes we have which are formed or triggered by our Unconscious Mind, which also controls about 6% of our behaviour.  They involve an unconscious attachment of an emotional attitude or internal belief to something (an object, type of animal, social category) which can lead to discriminatory behaviour.  Children aren’t born with a fear of spiders, it usually becomes a learned behaviour from one of their parents, guardians, adult relatives, or siblings.  The same can apply to racial prejudice.

Implicit Associations are a normal outcome of socialisation with other people such as our family, the media, and other influences, in other words the ‘nurture’ part of our upbringing, as opposed to the ‘nature’ part.  We all have stereotypical beliefs and biased attitudes, which can originate from a desire to ‘fit in’, for example football fans, or for power or intimacy. 

Our Unconscious Mind has more power over the way we talk or behave than our Conscious Mind, for example, our conscious mind processes 45 pieces of information per second, whereas our unconscious mind processes 10 million pieces of information per second!  Our conscious mind takes approximately 300 milliseconds to begin to process an image, whereas MRI Scans show that it takes our unconscious mind 80 milliseconds to begin processing an image.  Our unconscious mind drives ‘negative associations’ which in turn drive our body language and behaviour, which can have a significant impact on others and lead to exclusion. 

So, being biased is ‘normal’ and we all have biases, but by increasing awareness of these and how they impact behaviour can help us better understand and change prejudicial behaviour to be more inclusive.  As our thoughts and feelings are formed in our unconscious mind, if we are aware of our prejudices or attitudes, we can challenge them and our underlying beliefs and assumptions.

Training in how to overcome Unconscious Bias has a positive impact in the workplace and enables participants to acquire the skills and ability to be able to change and control behaviour and break bad habits regarding prejudice and bias.  It also improves cross-cultural awareness in order for us to communicate with, relate to, and see issues from the perspective of people with other cultures.  So next time you have a reaction against a large spider, ask yourself from where this originates and what other Implicit Associations or biases you have and how you can overcome them to become more inclusive.

'I was shocked at my reaction to certain photos you showed us in the first exercise.  I had no idea that we are almost pre-programmed to be prejudiced and why we are so quick to judge.  Thank you for opening our eyes and for helping us to understand so many of the cultural differences and nuances in our company.'  Head of HR

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