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Engagement

Unconscious Bias in a Post COVID-19 World

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Unconscious Bias in a Post COVID19 World

Introduction: Why now?

I have been educating and training people on Unconscious Bias for nearly a decade: this is not a new conversation. I drafted this paper on Unconscious Bias prior to the murder of George Floyd. While racism and police brutality are by no means new topics, that particular incident drew a line in the sand for a lot of people. I’ve noticed two significant shifts: It has brought a much-needed spotlight on the racism and systemic racism experienced by POC around the world; and, made even the strongest of allies think twice as they try to find the right ways to demonstrate support for a community in need. Clients and friends are asking me to proofread blogs, memos and Facebook posts. Since March of this year, the demand for anti-racism has increased dramatically as it’s taken centre stage in the media thanks to significant protests in the US and around the world. Education on Unconscious Bias is more important and relevant than ever.

Current events: COVID-19 and racism

COVID-19 has brought elements of racism and systemic racism to the forefront. For example:

  • COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the black community and other minorities,
  • Incidents of racial discrimination towards the Asian community have increased, similar to those seen during the SARS outbreak.

The challenges this place on individuals, employees, and our culture is like nothing we’ve seen in our lives.  The impact of the pandemic has affected almost all elements of our daily personal and professional lives. The protests following the murder of George Floyd have been seen around the world, highlighting the systemic racism that perpetuates these crimes and allows them to largely go unpunished.  However, we are starting to see some discussion and actions from leaders. While the necessary change isn’t going to happen overnight, we can absolutely say that the momentum has increased.

Changing course

What we need now is a way forward, and in order to find that, we need to first unpack our understanding of racism. In this article I will explore how unconscious and implicit biases can result in racial discrimination, and how we can manage those biases. I am also going to discuss allyship, and actions we can take to create the change we need to see. Taking my cue from Dr Bonnie Henry, I would like to approach this topic with kindness and compassion.

In challenging times, I find it helpful to look back on history to see how we’ve coped in the face of tragedy. As a white woman I am able to access privilege solely on the colour of my skin. As a lesbian, I share the experience of “otherness” with many different minorities. While the lived experiences of being black or being gay are not the same, I have an understanding of what it is like to live as someone who is not “centred” in our society, or not fitting in with a prescribed way of being. It’s with this understanding I’ve been reflecting on the Stonewall Riots which took place over 5 days in 1969, and are credited with being one of the most important events leading up to the gay liberation movement and our modern fight for LGBTQ+ rights – a movement that has directly affected me and my family. While the media coverage of the protests and discrimination can be hard to digest, I am slightly comforted by the idea that movements are messy – but in the past they have gotten us what we need.

What is unconscious bias?

Exploring unconscious bias is a great starting point for learning and understanding the biases we have and how they impact racial discrimination.

So what is it? Unconscious bias is an inclination or preference formed without reasonable justification that can prevent judgment from being balanced or even-handed. It tends to result in prejudice in favor or against a person or group. Research suggests bias cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed.

Ways to manage unconscious bias

The first thing we need to do to manage unconscious bias is to recognize and accept that we all have biases. The key is to learn to manage them. There are a variety of different ways we can do this; the two most important areas of focus are: research, and sources of information. It may seem like these two are one in the same, but they are not.

In this context, research means to study different topics to broaden our understanding of the systems that exist around us. For example, research shows us that studying privilege systems can strengthen our compassion. Research also extends to understanding our own experiences which is further discussed in allyship, below.

We are constantly influenced by different sources of information: parents, friends, community, teachers, media, social media, etc. Examining, and importantly, broadening our sources of information should be considered key in managing bias. Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that we can consume all sources of information, so this is where our critical thinking skills come into play. When reviewing sources of information go through the following actions:

  • Observe
  • Reflect
  • Evaluate
  • Analyze

You may notice that I have deliberately refrained from listing any actions that require conclusions to be drawn. This is because now is not the time for answers, it’s the time to listen and learn. Meaningful conclusions will naturally follow.

Research has shown that one of the best ways to curb bias is to use data, especially to use data to hold people accountable. This is a major part of what we do at Dignii.

Consider using data to measure diversity and disparities – we do it for most everything else. Businesses do not simply say “oh I feel like sales are great this quarter” – They look to the data! The same can, and should be applied to diversity and inclusion. Research shows us that using data helps to prevent unintended discrimination by measuring disparities, is helpful in managing bias. Data also gives you a way to measure the change you want to see in the workplace.

Allyship

Now is a GREAT time to call on allies. Allyship can mean something different to everyone, depending on your relationship to the issue at hand.

An ally is someone who is willing to take action in support of another person to remove barriers that person faces, either in the workplace or community. Allyship should be considered a lifelong process. Rather than a one off gesture, it is a process – a coming together of people to build relationships based on trust, accountability and consistency. It does not mean to centre yourself in the issue. Sometimes it means something as simple as just listening.

Listen to other’s stories. Empathy is powerful.

Ways to demonstrate Allyship

Our sense of community can help guide what our allyship looks like as it relates to awareness, exploration, listening and learning.

Awareness

Awareness is key to understanding the stereotypes and bias you may have – including internally – for example, think of the ‘model minority myth’ (stereotype based on the narrative that Asian Canadian/USA kids are “whiz kids”, good at music, Tiger Moms, and so on).

One of the significant problems with this stereotype is that it erases the differences among individuals and becomes a barrier to racial justice. It’s often used to downplay the impact of racial discrimination, and pits minorities against each other, creating a hierarchy of minorities. It is imperative to challenge this stereotype by understanding that while the collective is important, individual differences still exist. We can then highlight those differences and celebrate them.

Recently there has been discussion of ‘virtue signalling’ on social media. Virtue signalling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favour for certain political ideas or cultural happenings. It gives the user a sense of being morally superior. Ideally, we should beware of virtue signalling, and if you must do something performative, particularly on social media, link to real action (e.g. providers of accurate information, recognized charities, or elevate the voices of those not heard).

Explore

In my opinion, strengthening our sense of empathy is the best way to understand other peoples’ experiences. To do so, we need to explore and learn. If we explore the concepts of white privilege and white fragility for example, we arrive at the understanding that being white  doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it just means your skin tone isn’t one of the things making it hard. This is discussed further below.

Seeking out new sources of information is an easy and effective way to explore new concepts. This is also an effective way of seeing the landscape of perspectives on race. An article I found particularly interesting as a white person was “20+ allyship actions for Asians to show up for the Black Community Right Now” written by Michelle Kim and published in Medium. This article discusses the perspective of Asian Americans as a minority, and details her experience, providing some great actions for people to take as individuals.

What should you do with white privilege?

White privilege is the concept that there is societal privilege for white people over non-white people, especially if they are all under the same social, political or economic circumstances at a period in time (see, for example, the work of Cheryl I Harris and George Lipsitz). For those benefiting from white privilege, there are a few actions to be taken to even the playing field.

Firstly, white privilege can be used to confront racism. Of course, this is not a call for people to put themselves in harm’s way, rather, it serves as a reminder that there are situations where we can use our privilege to intervene and support anti-racism.

Secondly, white people can talk to their peers about the barriers to success non-white people face. Racism against the Asian community is not the Asian community’s problem to fix, nor is it the Black communities to fix. This is a time to collectively recognize the hurt and disrespect that has been caused and start to take some steps forward.

Listen

Sometimes we need reminding what it means to listen. We listen when we give someone our undivided attention. We listen when we don’t interrupt. We listen when we don’t offer an alternative or judgement. We listen when we show the speaker that we understand what they said. And we really show them that we’re listening when we remember what they said.

Listening doesn’t mean giving the answers. Right now, a lot of people are hurting, and they need to be heard. Sometimes the message is hard to hear, noting the importance of a healthy balance to hearing about other people’s trauma and taking care of yourself. We need to treat each other with compassion and kindness.

Reflecting back on the actions we can take to demonstrate allyship, it is clear that allyship is ongoing – it is a relationship that you develop and nurture.

Steps moving forward

When it comes to managing unconscious bias in a world that is experiencing a pandemic and a culture reckoning, there are a few key steps to moving forward: exploring our sources of information, developing a sense of allyship and taking care of yourself, and using data to measure the change you want to see.

Seek out different content and sources of information – critical thinking is a great skill to develop, particularly when consuming media. Do your research. Think about what allyship means to you. Conversely, explore the support systems that are available. Take care of each other – and take a break. Consider having social media “off” days.

It would be a mistake not to mention our right to vote within the context of supporting cultural change. On the issue of voting, LaTosha Brown, the Co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, spoke on Pod Save America recently. She discussed the idea that young people don’t care about voting, countering that it’s not that young people don’t want to vote – young people, particularly of young people of colour, don’t see a benefit to themselves if they vote. They don’t see themselves in the system, represented in the government, that’s the disconnect. Young people, particularly people of colour and minorities need to be engaged in the political process: votes drive policy. Voting is one of the best ways to be seen in a democracy.

Final Thoughts

The journey to a diverse and inclusive community and workplace is a marathon, not a sprint. Understanding our own unconscious biases is the first step. One thing I’m doing to power the momentum of our current movement is to check in with my allyship. I set calendar reminders for every 2 weeks with a note about what anti-discrimination means to me and what I should be doing every day or week. Reminding ourselves and our networks about the importance of managing our biases and advancing diverse voices is key to our D&I journeys.

To start a conversation with Elisabeth about unconscious bias and your D&I journey, reach out at elisabeth@dignii.com.

Employee Engagement, COVID-19, and Working-From-Home

Road slow shutter

COVID-19 has led (or required) most employers to initiate Work From Home (“WFH”) policies. For companies that did not have WFH policies or a remote work culture in place, this has led to a steep learning curve of both new tool stacks – here is a list of 32 free tools – as well as team behaviours and patterns for remote work – here are Slack’s guides to remote work.

With a shift to WFH, communication is key. Communications expert Dana Harvey covers 5 important virtual communication skills to increase productivity and morale for yourself and your virtual teams in an excellent blog post. One of the points Dana makes is to “get personal.” It is imperative for leadership to recognize that employees (i.e. humans 😊 ) as “social creatures who crave a feeling of connection” can “feel isolated and disconnected” while working remotely. Dana’s suggestion to “strengthen relationships and build rapport” through carving out time for “virtual coffee chats” in lieu of water cooler chats is a good one. Even spending a few minutes at the start of each meeting going around the group and asking about “what’s going on in your colleagues’ lives” and/or asking “team members to share a personal highlight of their day” helps create emotional bonds between the team. 

At Dignii, in addition to these informal check-ins and conversations, we advocate asking employees to share about their experiences on a regular basis through short, simple and scientific surveys. There are two types of surveys that we encourage our clients to run at this time: 1) a check-in survey, and 2) an engagement survey. The check-in survey asks open-ended questions such as:

  • What went well this week?
  • What are the challenges you faced this week?
  • Do you have the resources you require to meet the team goals?

It is important that the check-in surveys do not replace one-on-ones. If a company has a culture of regular one-on-ones between supervisors and team members, these should continue virtually. However, a check-in survey can augment one-on-ones, especially if the feedback is being reviewed by a senior executive (in addition to the supervisor) or if the survey is run anonymously where an employee can share openly about concerns they may have during this difficult time. It is often hard for an employee to talk about anxiety with their supervisor – especially if the anxiety is around whether they will have a job or not next month or whether the company will remain in business. 

Feedback surveys can also include open-ended questions to solicit ideas from employees on how to deal with the unique challenges facing each company due to COVID-19. Employees, especially those on the front lines of dealing with customers, suppliers, and channel partners have the most up-to-date information on the external forces affecting a company. They also spend considerable time, energy, and effort anticipating what happens next and how to deal with the same. A tip: to capture this, ask questions such as: “What should our priorities be as a team / company?” Where required reflect changing priorities in updated team goals and objectives.

The second type of survey we encourage companies to run at this time is a short, standardized engagement survey such as the UWES. Measuring engagement on a scientific and consistent basis is important throughout the year, precisely for times like these, when a company is going through a terrible “low” (or incredible “high” such as closing a major client or funding round).

If the only surveys being run are open-ended, there is no quantitative measure of engagement, only qualitative (if at all). Asking the same engagement questions regularly, which ask employees to score behaviours such as energy levels, mental resilience, task absorption, and pride in one’s work on a scale, means that there is quantitative engagement data which can be compared to “baseline” engagement data from when it is business as usual. If a company is just starting out with engagement surveys such as UWES – the leading engagement survey that Dignii uses – there is normative data reflecting average engagement scores for industry sectors and/or countries available for comparison. For example, it would not be unusual to see engagement scores initially dip as anxiety around COVID-19 impact on personal and professional lives is top-of-mind. However, for companies that genuinely care about their employees and reflect this in their behaviours and communications engagement scores over the next months could rise to higher than before. 

Again, it is important to recognize that the two types of surveys are complementary to receive a full and accurate picture of how employees are doing. COVID-19 can make or break teams; as companies adapt to remote work requirements, we urge companies to add the right survey tools into their employee communications and feedback processes. These survey tools can help companies stay connected to their employees and while gathering data on how they are feeling and how engaged they are.

Finally, we leave you with a link to an article on how not to keep tabs on employees. As Daniel Pink noted in his book “Drive”, one of the intrinsic drivers of engagement is “autonomy.” In my opinion, this is the wrong approach and will lead to increased disengagement, especially when employees find out that they are not being treated like adults. If we (rightly) expect employees to do their job without micromanagement while in the office, we should expect that same while they work from home.

Stay safe everybody. We can get through this together. Feel free to leave comments on how your company is adapting to work-from-home, connecting and checking-in with employees, and keeping the team positive and engaged.

The Link Between Inclusion & Engagement

People staircase

In Dignii’s last blog post, Elisabeth, the Co-founder of Dignii, talked about extending the discussion around Diversity & Inclusion in the workplace to include “elevating the dignity of the individual”  – which is Dignii’s purpose! – by respecting and valuing each employee fully for who they are. Elisabeth expounds that this requires embracing diversity in all its shapes and forms and recognizing the myriad intersections that represent the sum total of each of us, who we are physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and based on our life experience. 

This week I’m writing about the link between employee engagement – Dignii’s core product focus – and Diversity & Inclusion.

To me, the intuitive link is clear: from my experience as an employee, it is when I feel respected and valued at work that I am the most engaged. My best experience of engagement was when the owners of a consultancy trusted me to handle their biggest client; I was incredibly motivated and put in 50 to 60 hour weeks fully absorbed in my work.

The opposite is also very familiar: there were instances of jobs where I lost sight of how my role contributed to the mission, goals, and objectives of the organization and essentially felt left out and not valued. The result was that even my normally good work ethic was ground down and I gradually burned out and left. Unfortunately, we all have similar stories.

Let’s move from the personal intuitive understanding of employee engagement to examine the science behind it.

What is Employee Engagement? A Positive Occupational Health Psychology Perspective 

According to Professor Schaufeli*, one of the World’s leading authorities on employee engagement, employee engagement is: “a positive, fulfilling, work related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption; [whereby vigor refers to] high levels of energy and mental resilience; [dedication refers to] being strongly involved in one’s work [and] experiencing a sense of significance; [and absorption refers to] being fully concentrated and happily engrossed in one’s work.” (Schaufeli, Salanova, González-Romá, and Bakker, 2002: 74)

Professor Schaufeli developed this definition of engagement based on engagement being defined as the opposite of burnout in certain psychological models. For example, according to the Massachusetts General Hospital Handbook of General Hospital Psychiatry (6th Edition): “Burnout is a pathologic syndrome in which prolonged occupational stress leads to emotional and physical depletion and ultimately to the development of maladaptive behaviors (e.g., cynicism, depersonalization, hostility, detachment).” We can see that “depletion” is the opposite of “vigor”, and that “depersonalization, hostility, detachment” are the opposite of dedication. 

For a more nuanced understanding of engagement vs. burnout and engagement vs. satisfaction, it is instructive to refer back to the foundational Circumplex Model of human emotion by James Russell which maps human emotions on the dimensions of “valence” (pleasure/pleasantness) and “arousal” (activation/energy).

3: Typical circumplex model. Adapted from Feldman Barrett & Russell (1998).

Reviewing the top right quadrant which represent states of high valence and high activation: “work engagement” occurs when employees are experiencing a state of “excitement” and “elation”. The direct opposite of “work engagement” is “burnout,” which occurs when employees feel “depressed” and “lethargic” (bottom left quadrant; states of low valence and low activation). 

Interestingly, the history of engagement surveys has tended to measure more the “valence/satisfaction” dimension than the “activation/energy”. Gallup was instrumental in bringing engagement to the forefront of workplace discussions but their initial surveys were more a one dimensional measure of satisfaction. The danger of measuring only the valence dimension is that you cannot distinguish between engaged employees (top right) and employees who are satisfied but much less constructive in their workplace than they could be (bottom right).  Unfortunately, many organizations are not providing the right resources to the employee relative to the demands of the job leading to stress and burnout instead of engagement.

Now that we have an intuitive and academic definition of employee engagement let’s make the link between inclusion and engagement.

*Dignii is a licensed vendor of the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale survey, developed by Professor Schaufeli.

The Link Between Employee Engagement and Inclusion 

One framework to apply is to think of ‘inclusion’ as valuing others, and ‘engagement’ as involving others. However, in my opinion, this is somewhat reductive. A more comprehensive definition of inclusion by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.” This definition of inclusion comprises both valuing others (treat individuals fairly and with respect) and involving others (employees have equal access to opportunities and can contribute fully). To me, the broader definition of inclusion includes a precondition of engagement, which is ensuring employees can contribute fully, since contributing fully necessarily involves “vigor”, “dedication”, and “absorption”.

Engagement is a state of emotional well being that is a result of inclusion in action at the workplace. Employees need to feel trusted, and to trust in their organization, before they feel connected as a whole. Employees feel trusted when they are given a high degree of autonomy, which is one of the three intrinsic motivators of engaged employees alongside mastery, and purpose, according to Daniel Pink.

When framed this way, the overlapping drivers of engagement and inclusion are clear to see, and it is not surprising to find studies that confirm a high correlation between the two states. A study by The Winters Group found .78 correlation between inclusion and engagement. An earlier study by Gallup in 2005, found that 60% percent of respondents with the highest scores on diversity and inclusion questions were engaged whereas only 11% of those with the lowest scores in diversity and inclusion items were engaged.

Therefore, feeling trusted and valued (employee inclusion) is a necessary precondition for employee engagement. An engaged employee is

“a person who shows up to work each day as their best self by passionately adding value, and proactively seeking to achieve their company’s mission. Engaged employees demonstrate this through their interactions with coworkers, their attitude, and of course, their work.”

Finally, I share some additional resource on work engagement and inclusion:

The History of Work Engagement by Professor Schaufeli

How Diversity and Inclusion Drive Employee Engagement

Compilation of Diversity & Inclusion “Business Case” Research Data