Don’t Just Try to Eradicate Bias — Build Bridges of Inclusion

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Learning to accept differences, watching our thoughts, avoiding right and wrong dichotomies, training for unconscious bias awareness — these are all often-recommended steps toward being more open and accepting of others.

Organizations spend billions of dollars on training efforts in the hopes of creating more inclusive environments for their diverse teams. Unfortunately, training is not a complete solution.

The subconscious mind, where all of these behavioral drives come from, is about 17 ½ times faster in processing information than the conscious mind, which attempts to moderate impulses.

If you have a biased response to a particular person, even if you use your training to moderate it, you are still experiencing the bias. Moreover, you’ve likely already conveyed your discomfort or distaste to the other person through a number of different micro-expressions. We’ve all seen the smiling mouth with the blank eyes or stiff shoulders.

But let’s take it one step further and say that you totally succeed in overcoming your negative response to the other group of people. This still does not mean that you are embracing them as you would someone with whom you feel an affinity. You are simply being more tolerant. Tolerance is not inclusion, just like the absence of hate is not love.

So, what can we do to promote genuine inclusion? I believe the answer is on the other side of the inclusion equation. Working to remove the obstacles of bias that divide us is good, but we also need to focus on fostering and nurturing more affinity between groups of people who may be perceived as different from each other on the surface. I propose we intentionally work to “engineer affinity.”

Evidence for the Power of Engineering Affinity
Research shows that when people discover they share commonalities with others, their relationships improve. This natural development of affinity was a main theme of the award-winning Hollywood movie, The Green Book. In this movie, Dr. Don Shirley is a world-class African American pianist who embarks on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962.

In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian American neighborhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences and biases, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation. The key to fostering more individual inclusion is to create situations where people get to know each other better and form the connections needed to bind them in affinity. 

That may sound harder to do than unconscious bias training, but actually it’s not that difficult. One good example of how affinity can be engineered using a very simple approach is found in the work of Hunter Gehlbach, associate professor and associate dean at the University of California, Santa Barbara Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.

Gehlbach knew from other studies that students who felt an affinity with their teacher tended to perform better in school. Gehlbach wanted to know if this affinity could be intentionally engineered. To test his theory, Gehlbach partnered with the faculty and students of a high school.

At the beginning of the school year, he gave 315 of the incoming ninth-graders and 25 of their teachers a “getting to know you” survey. In the survey, the teachers and students responded to the same questions, which asked about personal preferences such as favorite hobbies, charities they would support, and the characteristics they wanted in friends, among others. The teachers and students who learned about their shared interests perceived each other to be more similar and formed an affinity connection.

Students of color were the biggest beneficiaries of this engineered affinity. Gehlbach believes this effect was due to White educators discovering affinities with students of color. The teachers may not have otherwise sought these commonalities because of assumptions that racial and ethnic differences precluded any other common points of connection. 

Can you do this type of high-impact survey in your organization? Of course you can. Will it cost a lot less than providing unconscious bias training for thousands of people? You bet it will.

Another easy way to foster affinity is by adding more structure to some of your existing mentoring efforts. Put your senior executives on a “Green Book” journey with your underrepresented talent.

I personally witnessed this approach a few years ago in a structured mentoring program designed to bring people with high potential, often from underrepresented groups, together with executives who were mostly White males. In this program, professionals from underrepresented groups — the mentees — were paired with White, male senior executives in a one- or two-week job-shadowing program.

The mentees attended meetings led by the senior executive and also interviewed and developed relationships with those who reported to the executive during a period of intense interaction.

Many of these professionals were later included in succession plans or were tapped for higher-level positions. It was clear that these engineered encounters had offered senior executives an opportunity to connect with people they might not have known well previously.

I also saw the power of engineered affinity in one of my workshops that is designed to show participants across all demographics how inclusion benefits everyone.

I show participants a video with examples of how people experience marginalization and exclusion. These examples include straight White men as well as people of color, people with hidden disabilities, and people from just about every group you can imagine.

After the video, I ask the participants, “Did you see yourself or someone you love in the video?” All hands go up. Next, we debrief on specific aspects of the video that touched different people in the room. The result is that everyone begins to see how exclusion affects them personally and how it affects others. Thinking about this effect generates a sense of affinity around a common desire not to be excluded and an outpouring of ideas on how to create more inclusion. 

Spend Less Time Studying Obstacles and More Time Building Bridges
Unconscious bias training that raises our self-awareness can of course play a role in diversity and inclusion efforts, but let’s be clear: Training that raises awareness of what keeps us apart will not in and of itself bring us closer together.

Maya Angelou, the American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist, once said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

We just need to seek out our commonalities. Becoming aware of what divides us in the form of biases and learning techniques to address these challenges is indeed important, but it’s not enough.

To create inclusion, we need to nurture connection — that is, affinity — among people who see themselves as different. An important piece of this puzzle is found in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, who once wisely said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Diversity and inclusion leaders would do well to heed those words and work to drive inclusion not just by addressing the obstacles that divide us, but also by intentionally engineering the discovery of the affinities that bind us.

Joseph Santana is an INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board member. He is also president of Joseph Santana, LLC, a boutique consulting practice. This article ran in the June 2019 issue.